Operation Branchform is Police Scotland’s name for its investigation into the finances of the SNP. Since it began in July 2021 we have seen the resignation and arrest of Scotland’s former first minister, the resignation and arrest of her husband from his job as chief executive and the resignation and arrest of the party’s former treasurer. To date, none of them has been charged.
A few other events of note have occurred in the 28 months that Branchform has so far taken. We witnessed the official end of the Covid pandemic. Rishi Sunak became the UK’s third prime minister in the space of a year. The Queen died and Charles became King. Russia invaded Ukraine. Scotland qualified for the 2024 European football championships. We saw the organisation and opening of official inquiries into the management of the Covid horror in the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the outbreak of a new war in the Middle East. But still, Police Scotland have not concluded Operation Branchform.
There can be only three possible reasons for Branchform’s continuing life. The first is that the matter is simply so complex that the finest brains in Police Scotland have been unable to untangle where money went, how much, to whom and when. This is unlikely, as the police can call on the services of the finest forensic accountants the UK has to offer.
The second is that the exercise has indeed finished and soon a file will make its way to the procurator fiscal. The fiscal will then have to decide if there is sufficient evidence to warrant taking he matter to court. Alternatively, there is no case to answer and Police Scotland is making ready its air raid shelters and issuing hard hats to repel the missiles of outrage coming from the massed forces of unionist media and politicians.
Coming in at number three is the possibility that very soon now Police Scotland will arrest and charge one or more of the “Branchform Three.” If such a thing is to happen it will lead to the most sensational criminal trial in the UK since 1979, when Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted of charges of conspiracy and attempted murder.
Sadly, we have to address the word conspiracy.
There are those in Scotland convinced that Police Scotland deliberately, and at the behest of the UK government, set out to destroy Nicola Sturgeon in particular, and, by extension, badly damage the independence cause. They see a conspiracy at the highest corridors of power. Should it turn out, in five or fifty years, that there is material truth in this theory then Police Scotland will have been guilty of the most appalling criminality.
Most rational, thinking, people are likely to conclude that such a conspiracy is not only extremely unlikely to have been agreed to by individuals and an organisation sworn to uphold the law, but is also unlikely because the early discovery of such wrongdoing would certainly lead to loss of employment, loss of pension, loss of reputation and, potentially, loss of freedom. Most crucially, it would destroy public confidence in Police Scotland. People would ask, if they can do that to them what’s to stop them doing that to me?
Respect for the law and the forces of law and order are fundamental to a stable society
Police Scotland’s reputation is fragile enough as things stand, without the organisation fuelling further erosion of its status by its failure to conclude Branchform. We live in deeply fragile times. Respect for the law and the forces of law and order are fundamental to a stable society. Stability is essential to economic success. Yet criminality and lack of respect for the law abounds; from attacks on police, fire and ambulance crews in Edinburgh suburbs and Ayrshire villages to members of parliament playing fast and loose with expenses, passing lucrative government contracts to cronies, lying to the monarch and parliament and undermining the rule of law when the decisions of judges are inconvenient to the governing party.
In the eyes of the law, there is no difference between those who throw flaming torches at police officers and those who use their privileged position in government to corruptly favour friends or allies. Yet, there does appear to be a different attitude to those in power. Even within the power structures of the nation, we see that some people are treated more leniently than others. How is it that Boris Johnson and his staff could party late into the night, surrounded by police and security, yet none received anything near the £10,000.00 fine handed out to a Nottingham student? Indeed, some of the Downing Street merry-makers have been given seats in the House of Lords. Margaret Ferrier, who recklessly took a train to London after being diagnosed with Covid, was sentenced to 270 hours of unpaid work and, consequently, lost her position as an MP.
The public sees all this and wonders whose side the law is on. Is there one law for Margaret Ferrier and the Nottingham student and another for Boris Johnson? Is there one law for Nicola Sturgeon and another for Michelle Mone, who it is alleged benefited to the tune of many millions when an introduction by Tory ministers saw her land a huge contract for PPE that turned out to be unusable?
Now, in a story in The Herald on 28th November, two former sheriffs, Kevin Drummond KC and Douglas Cusine, suggest that the delay in making the police findings public may be down to the prosecuting authority – the Crown Office – rather than the police. The two lawyers say the Crown may have ordered further inquiries.
If it is the case that the Crown Office has ordered more investigative work, that would suggest that either there is currently insufficient evidence to successfully prosecute or that the Crown has reason to believe the investigation has been misguided and has sent the police to look in other places. We are quickly reaching the stage where nobody is prepared to believe anybody. The ‘Sturgeonites’ cry foul in one direction, the Unionists in another, the ‘Albanites’, yet another and the Daily Express will blame the EU. It is time for the grown-ups to take charge. Either bring charges and let’s have a trial or say there is not enough evidence to risk the time of the judiciary and the purse of the public.
The longer in limbo the more ridiculous the conspiracy theories will become
It is now urgent that Police Scotland and the Crown Office bring Operation Branchform to an end. That its continuation must be negatively affecting those at its centre is unarguable.
Far more important is that public patience is being severely tested. The longer the matter is left in limbo the more ridiculous the conspiracy theories will become, and the more the bona fides of Police Scotland will be questioned. If there is one body that people should have good reason to trust in troubled times, it is the police. When the reputation of the police is eroded, the line between order and chaos becomes ever more thin, ever less secure. We cannot risk that.