The chief executive of Scotland’s largest political party has resigned after the party misled the media and the public about its falling membership numbers.
Peter Murrell said on Saturday that he was resigning as the chief executive of the Scottish National Party (SNP) with immediate effect.
Murrell, who is the husband of former SNP leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, has been the party’s chief executive for more than 20 years.
On March 16, the SNP was forced to confirm media allegations that its membership has dropped by 30,000 in just over a year, which it had previously denied.
According to the party’s own statistics, as of Feb. 15, 2023, its membership was 72,186, having fallen from 103,884 in 2021.
SNP media chief Murray Foote subsequently resigned, citing “serious issues” with the initial denials that he had issued on behalf of his party.
‘No Intent to Mislead’
Murrell said he took responsibility for the misleading statements, but insisted that he did not intend to mislead the public.
He said in a statement on Saturday: “Responsibility for the SNP’s responses to media queries about our membership number lies with me as chief executive.
“While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome. I have therefore decided to confirm my intention to step down as chief executive with immediate effect.
“I had not planned to confirm this decision until after the leadership election. However, as my future has become a distraction from the campaign, I have concluded that I should stand down now, so the party can focus fully on issues about Scotland’s future.”
Murrell said he is “very proud” of the part he had played in “securing the electoral success the party has enjoyed over almost two decades,” and vowed to continue to work towards Scottish independence, which he said he believes “is now closer than ever.”
‘Acting in Good Faith’
The Sunday Mail reported last month that the SNP’s membership had dropped by 30,000 since 2021.
SNP communications chief Murray Foote described the claim as “drivel,” with the party saying in a separate story in the National that the “figure that was reported is not just flat wrong, it’s wrong by about 30,000.”
But the party was later forced to confirm the Sunday Mail story, and Foote subsequently resigned on March 17.
“Acting in good faith and as a courtesy to colleagues at party HQ, I issued agreed party responses to media inquiries regarding membership,” he said in a statement.
“It has subsequently become apparent there are serious issues with these responses. Consequently, I concluded this created a serious impediment to my role and I resigned my position with the SNP group at Holyrood.”
Scottish Conservative lawmaker Russell Findlay said Foote was being used as a “fall guy.”
“The problem is not a press officer. The problem is the rotten SNP leadership who deliberately lied to the press and public,” he said.
But the SNP denied the party had deliberately lied.
A party spokesman said: “The party was asked a specific question about loss of members as a direct result of the GRR (Gender Recognition Reform) Bill and Indyref2. The answer given was intended to make clear that these two reasons had not been the cause of significant numbers of members leaving.”
“In retrospect, however, we should not have relied on an understanding of people’s reasons for leaving as the basis of the information” given to the media, he said.
‘Continuity Won’t Cut It’
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, who is favoured by many Sturgeon loyalists to succeed her as SNP leader, praised the outgoing chief executive as “an outstanding servant of the independence movement.”
But critics of the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership—both inside and outside the party—have long questioned whether it is appropriate to have the same household holding both the roles of chief executive and leader.
Earlier on Saturday, the Herald newspaper reported that rebel members of the SNP’s National Executive Committee (NEC) were calling for Murrell to set a date for his departure by the end of the day.
Ash Regan, one of the candidates seeking to replace Sturgeon as party leader, commented on Twitter, “I am encouraged to see the democratic foundations of the party now asserting their rightful functions.”
Kate Forbes, another leadership contender, pledged to reform the party and committed to independent auditing of membership and finances.
In an open letter to SNP members on Saturday, she said, “If anyone was in any doubt that this needs to be a change election for the SNP, recent events and resignations confirm the core message of my campaign: continuity won’t cut it.”
‘Tear Itself Apart’
Meanwhile, the SNP’s political opponents highlighted that the party’s finances are still being investigated.
Scottish Conservative Chairman Craig Hoy said: “Peter Murrell’s resignation is long overdue, but there remain serious questions for him to answer, not least over the ‘missing’ £600k from party accounts.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said: “This latest resignation of a top SNP figure goes to show that the wheels have fallen off the SNP wagon.
“When Scotland most needs responsible governance, the SNP has turned inward and begun to tear itself apart.”
PA Media contributed to this report.