BEING one of the very highest forms of art, westerns offer endless insights into human affairs, politics included.

This week’s revived row over the SNP’s finances is a case in point.

In The Magnificent Seven, the bandit Calvera says contemptuously of the villagers he robs: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”

Granted, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell may not look much like Eli Wallach’s leering villain, but the accusation is that on his watch the same cynical attitude prevails, perhaps even the same disdain for the law.

At issue is the fate of some £500,000 the SNP raised in the spring of 2017 for a second referendum campaign.

The allegation - denied by the party - is the money went elsewhere, possibly repaying a £500,000 loan. This led to a complaint to the police of alleged fraud, on the basis that cash solicited for one purpose was used for another.

Police Scotland are still considering if it merits a full-blown investigation.

If there was an investigation, it would be deeply damaging to the party and to Nicola Sturgeon, not least because Mr Murrell is her husband.

It’s a murky tale, with SNP HQ patronising and secretive, while its accusers bear grudges and appear to have ulterior motives linked to Alex Salmond and his Alba party.

The row over the ‘missing’ money took off when the SNP’s accounts for 2019 came out in October last year showing reserves of £271,916, far less than the money raised in 2017.

The pro-independence but anti-Sturgeon website Wings Over Scotland kicked up a fuss, and the SNP’s then treasurer, the MSP Colin Beattie, responded with a panicky statement that only added to suspicions that the ringfenced money had gone astray.

“The Referendum Appeal Fund has a current balance of £593,501 and we can fully deploy those funds instantaneously,” he insisted, decrying “social media conspiracies”.

But he also said the reason people couldn’t see that figure in the accounts was because donations were “woven through” the overall income figures.

To many people that undermined the whole idea of a dedicated fund.

The story moved up a gear in mid-March when three members of the SNP’s finance and audit committee quit amid complaints about being denied access to the party’s accounts.

Wings Over Scotland, who would soon become Alba’s biggest online cheerleader, made an even bigger fuss.

Another Sturgeon-loather, the serial protestor Sean Clerkin, then lodged the fraud complaint with the police, essentially relaying what he’d read on Wings about the three resignations.

The row escalated again last Saturday when the new SNP treasurer, MP Douglas Chapman, quit saying he couldn’t fulfil his “fiduciary duties”.

READ MORE: Cherry quits SNP ruling body over transparency block

On Monday, SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC also resigned from the party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee, again citing issues with transparency and scrutiny.

She and Mr Chapman remain in the SNP, but are seen as Alba-adjacent because of close ties to Mr Salmond.

Two of the three audit committee quitters have also gone over to Alba, one as a Holyrood candidate.

Until Wings took up the baton, the SNP’s biggest internal critic over the fate of the money was councillor Chris McEleny, also an Alba candidate and now that party’s general secretary.

So on one reading, the money row seems to have been whipped up by Mr Salmond’s allies to make trouble for the SNP, and although the election has passed, a war of attrition goes on.

But there is also the shifty SNP.

It raised the money via its website, launched in March 2017 with the specific goal of fighting Indyref2, with a target of hitting £1m in 100 days.

“Donate to support our referendum campaign,” the party’s publicity said.

However a month later, Theresa May called a snap general election, and the website changed tack. “Your contribution will greatly benefit the election campaign,” it suddenly said.

After the SNP lost 21 of its 56 MPs, Indyref2 went on the backburner.

The donations page, after reaching £482,000, disappeared within hours of the result and the party claimed its fundraising efforts had been “focused on the general election”.

READ MORE: SNP abandons £1m fundraising appeal for second referendum

After an outcry at such rot, the party accepted the money would “only be used for the specific purpose of a referendum campaign... in that regard, the money is earmarked”.

Crucially, however, it was never earmarked in the SNP’s accounts, allowing conspiracies to flourish.

Mr Beattie, who is now coming back as treasurer, told SNP members the referendum cash was woven though the accounts as “like all other parties, the SNP does not separate out restricted funds in annual accounts”.

This is simply untrue.

Other parties do list restricted, or dedicated, funds in their annual accounts, and Mr Beattie doesn’t have to look far for examples.

The latest accounts for the Scottish Greens list two restricted funds of £66,648 and £6,598 for various elections, while the accounts for the Scottish Liberal Democrats list a restricted fund of £58,803 for use in “the western district of Edinburgh”.

Moreover, the SNP itself used to itemise all its restricted funds.

Its 2012 accounts listed and explained seven of them, including a “referendum fund” which ended the year at £91,325.

The Herald:

The treasurer then was the same Mr Beattie who now gives members a glib brush-off, despite the precedent.

If he wants to retain any credibility, he should restore fund listing for the SNP’s 2020 accounts, which are meant to be signed off by auditors this month.

Incidentally, the itemising of restricted funds ended under Mr Salmond with the 2013 accounts (signed off in mid-2014), in which the reserves were simply split into “restricted” and “unrestricted” funds.

Since Ms Sturgeon became leader, there has been even less transparency, with just a single net figure for “reserves” of all kinds.

But is any of this criminal? I’d be very surprised.

It seems to me that some or all of that Indyref2 money may well have been absorbed into the party’s general spending, irrigating other parts of the accounts when there was no immediate need to call on it.

READ MORE: SNP forced to reassure donors money raised to fight second referendum campaign will be frozen in party’s accounts

Yet the SNP can argue it exists to secure independence and so all its activities are directed to that end.

Whereas, if it was in a financial mess, it would set back the cause and there wouldn’t be an Indyref2, so using a putative campaign fund for more urgent needs would be defensible.

What isn’t defensible is raking in cash from people while insulting their intelligence.

If a party treats its ain folk like sheep, what does it say about its attitude to the rest of the electorate?