THE chief constable of Police Scotland has vigorously defended the force's investigation into SNP finances from attacks by former aides to Nicola Sturgeon.

Sir Iain Livingstone, who is stepping down from his role on August 10, described the actions taken during the long running Operation Branchform "as proportionate" and "necessary".

The investigation began two years ago and is being conducted by detectives alongside the Crown Office. It follows complaints about how £600,000 raised to campaign for independence was spent.

Noel Dolan, a former special advisor to Ms Sturgeon, last month described the search on April 5 of the home near Glasgow which the former First Minister shares with her husband Peter Murrell, which included the erection of a forensic tent being in front of the house, and the search of the SNP headquarters in Edinburgh as "very heavy handed" and "completely over the top".

Mr Murrell was arrested on the same day and released without charge later that day pending further investigation. SNP MSP treasurer Colin Beattie was later arrested and released without charge, also pending further investigation. Mr Beattie later stepped down from his role as party treasurer.

READ MORE: Operation Branchform: Police ‘fiercely resist political pressure'

Murray Foote, a former head of communications for the SNP at Holyrood who resigned after unwittingly misleading the media over membership numbers, described the investigation as “a grotesque circus”. He also compared the ongoing probe to the failed Rangers prosecution.

It was found to be a "malicious" by the Crown Office and more than £51m in public money has been paid out to those wrongly arrested in the course of the investigation.

"The action we take in any investigation is always based on proportionality and need and I am satisfied that the police action under Branchform has been proportionate," Mr Livingstone told The Herald when asked about Mr Dolan's comments.

"People are passing comment when they don't know the detail of the investigation. Assertions and criticisms which are uninformed I don't think help anyone. They can interfere with the rule of law and they can infringe the rights of individuals."


Police Scotland chief constable Sir Iain Livingstone. 

Pressed on Mr Dolan's remarks that the search of Ms Sturgeon and Mr Murrell's home and that of the SNP headquarters was heavy handed, he replied: "We wouldn't have carried out the action we took if we thought it was heavy handed.

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"The action we carried out was proportionate and necessary to the investigation."

The Chief Constable was then asked about Mr Foote's claims that the investigation could end up a "wild goose chase" and result in questions about the police's actions.

Mr Livingstone said: "Media commentators, individuals are obviously entirely at liberty to say what they wish to say. It is wholly inaccurate to suggest that there's any other motivation or intent from our inquiry other than to do the right thing.

"We would be in neglect of duty. I as chief constable would be in neglect of duty if we didn't follow the investigation to establish what's happened. In the fullness of time the evidence will be assessed and will be passed to the independent prosecutors and again that is the right thing to do.

"But in the meantime it is a live investigation and I personally feel we should respect the integrity of that investigation."

Mr Livingstone would not say whether he believed Police Scotland's Operation Branchform would be completed by the time he left the force in August.

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"I can't put any time limit on that," he said. "The investigation will take its course. It shouldn't be driven by political timescales and it shouldn't be driven by personal timescales that I have or any other officer has."

Prior to Operation Branchform, Police Scotland also carried out a high profile investigation into allegations made against former First Minister Alex Salmond.

Mr Salmond was acquitted of acquitted in 2020 of 13 sexual assault charges against nine women following a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh.

He was asked what he thought it showed about Police Scotland that it was prepared to open investigations into the SNP, Ms Sturgeon's husband, and also carried out a separate inquiry into allegations made against Mr Salmond.

He said it showed the operational independence of the force.

"I think it is something I consider to be a critical part of my duty. I think it is a constitutional principle, unwritten, about the operational independence [of Police Scotland].

"The co-relative of that independence is high levels of accountability in the police authority, in the government, in the media, the parliament, the people of Scotland.

"I think any objective observer would look at Police Scotland and at my period in office as chief constable and see how we have operated independently, whether through Covid transgressions by politicians, whether it is by the investigations you alluded to, how we police critical incidents, I think the people of Scotland should value that operational independence."

During the interview Mr Livingstone, who has been chief constable since 2018 having served for a year as interim chief constable, was asked about his possible successor.

Deputy chief constable of Police Scotland Malcolm Graham and the current chief constable of Durham Constabulary Jo Farrell are the only two applicants for the £232,000 a year job.

The Herald asked the chief constable would it be better to have someone who was familiar with the political environment in which Police Scotland operated rather than someone from a different part of the UK.

"When a new chief constable is appointed the value for someone who knows policing in Scotland can at times be equal to somebody coming in with a fresh eye [with] experience we value from other jurisdictions," he said.

"Police Scotland is a magnet for talent right across the UK. We've appointed a number of assistant chief constables from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, people have joined us from the National Crime Agency, from Surrey, from the Metropolitan Police." 

Commenting on the police investigation into SNP finances in April, Mr Dolan said: "I believe the police behaviour in the use of tents outside and invading the former First Minister’s home has been very heavy-handed. It was completely over the top.

“I spoke to people involved with Police Scotland, and they made it clear this would never have happened to a Prime Minister. A Prime Minister would never have had a tent outside his house.”

He called for Holyrood to investigate the use of police powers. He added: “Once this case is over the way Police Scotland has handled this matter will have to be scrutinised by the Parliament. I think it’s remiss no-one has raised this issue in the Scottish Parliament.”

The following month Mr Foote wrote that, if the probe is a "wild goose chase" this will "have serious consequences for the investigating authorities".

He stated: "Given the grim spectacle at the house Peter Murrell shares with Nicola Sturgeon and at the party HQ, it's inconceivable the authorities would be so cavalier without slam dunk evidence, right?

"Not necessarily. One word counters that assumption: Rangers."

If the operation has been "spectacularly misjudged" then "the reputational cost will be far more substantial than the cash spent on manpower", Foote wrote in the Daily Record.

Mr Livingstone spoke to The Herald after appearing before the Scottish Police Authority Board in which he gave a wide-ranging statement which highlighted ‘limited investment in police infrastructure’ and admitted ‘Police Scotland is institutionally racist.’

During his final statement to the board, the outgoing police chief, also addressed Operation Branchform, speaking publicly for the first time about the inquiry.

The case has been widely reported in the media and discussed on social media and, reflecting on such scrutiny he said: “As chief constable I greatly value such assurance, oversight and challenge. It is a necessary, vital, productive and a key component to maintain and build public trust in policing and vital to maintain our democratic legitimacy. I truly feel the more people know about policing, understand what we actually do and how we actually do it, the more the trust and support of our fellow citizens increases.”

He then focused on Branchform in particular and on ‘operational independence’ as well as ‘political interference’.

“In carrying out our duties, the operational independence of the chief constable is a key democratic principle” he said.

“Of course, the core element of that essential operational independence is the high level of accountability I have just described. It follows from that that police investigations must be allowed to progress without any form of political interference.

“I have previously asserted and will reassert today that I fiercely resist any attempt to bring political pressure to my decision making or upon any police operation. Police operations are and will be based on public safety, the rule of law, not politics or any constitutional position."