THE head of the Yes Scotland campaign group Blair Jenkins has defended accepting foreign donations to fund the campaign for independence despite the SNP previously stating that donations should only come from those registered to vote in the referendum.
And question marks also arose over Mr Jenkins claim that donations from abroad would be limited to £500 when it emerged that a fundraising group in America claiming to support Yes Scotland was asking for more than twice as much to support independence.
The row came as the chief executive of Yes Scotland gave evidence to the Commons Scottish affairs Select Committee where he also refused to confirm that his organisation would agree to follow the rulings of the Electoral Commission’s on the referendum.
In the same hearing his main opponent Blair McDougall, Campaign Director of the pro-UK Better Together campaign, said that his organisation would support the Electoral Commission’s advice whatever it came up with and would only accept money from UK voters.
Mr Jenkins told the committee that Yes Scotland would accept foreign money of up £500 but then admitted that the campaign would be “built on small donations.”
Labour MP Pamela Nash asked: “How can you then say it won’t have a small impact?”
Mr Jenkins replied: “We anticipate that a very small proportion of our donations will be from overseas.”
He said that the Yes campaign recognised that there “are Scots abroad who want to make a contribution.”
But he added that if the Electoral Commission asked them not to take foreign donations then Yes Scotland would stop, but did not anticipate this would happen.
Mr Jenkins also said that the position on foreign donations was known from May however, in July the SNP’s referendum campaign director Angus Robertson said it was wrong to take money from abroad or other parts of the UK not taking part in the referendum.
Mr Robertson , the SNP’s leader in Westminster, said: “The decision on the future of Scotland is rightly a matter for people in Scotland. As such, it is only common sense that major donations to either campaign should originate in Scotland.”
Making it clear that only those registered to vote should help fund the campaigns, he added: “We are working on the same basis as for UK elections and referendums, where it was decided, quite rightly, that only those on the electoral register should be allowed to donate to political parties. The same approach should be followed for this Scottish vote.”
Mr McDougall insisted that Better Together will only accept donations from those registered to vote in the UK and checks its website and donations to make sure this is the case.
He told the committee this did provide an extra administration but was important “for reputational reasons” and told donors to confirm they were registered to vote in the UK.
The row over funding was further confused when it emerged after the hearing that a campaign group Americans for an Independent Scotland supporting Yes Scotland was asking for donations of a lot more than £500 including with amounts to tick up to $2,014 (£1,265) and “other” donations for more.
A spokesman for the Yes Scotland Campaign pointed out that the website was only asking for donations to be used for advertisements and education on Scottish independence in the USA, including full page ads in newspapers, but not for political parties or the Yes campaign. he added that it had received no money from the group and would abide by the £500 rule
But a spokesman for Better Together said: “ Yet again, we have another example of the anti-UK campaign trying to set the rules to suit their own ends. Here we have a group trying to raise thousands of dollars to campaign for the break up of Britain, but Yes Scotland think this is ok because it is being spent before it gets to Scotland. Perhaps this was what Alex Salmond was talking about when he talked about the referendum being bought and sold.”
The exchanges in the committee came amid concerns that the pro-independence side will ignore the the advice of the independent and neutral Electoral Commission which has been given the task of drawing up advice on the rules and wording of the referendum question.
Mr Jenkins pointed out that the Electoral Commission is “an advisory body” and “in fairness with any advisory body you have to look at the advice first before you agree it.”
When asked by Labour Glenrothes MP if he would accept the advice of the Electoral Commission, Mr Jenkins said: “I would be very surprised if the Electoral Commission came back with findings I would disagree with.”
He was challenged by the committee chairman Ian Davidson who said that accepting the advice and his answer were “not the same thing.”
But Mr Jenkins said: “The Electoral Commission’s role is advisory so there is always room for disagreement.”
However he warned that in the “court of public opinion” it will be difficult to not accept advice from the Electoral Commission if “it is well researched and tested.”
Pushed on the question, Mr Jenkins said he would be “surprised” if the SNP Scottish government’s proposed question would be changed by the Electoral Commission.
He said the that the controversial “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” was fair, despite the committee’s own conclusion that “do you agree” makes the question loaded.
Mr Jenkins argued “do you agree” does not make a loaded question.
He said: “If I asked ‘do you agree your pay should be cut by £50,000?’ you probably would not agree.”
However, he said that changing the word independence for “separation” would make the question loaded, but said Yes Scotland “would be willing to discuss it.”
Mr Jenkins also insisted that people in Scotland should not necessarily be given the detail about what would happen should they vote for independence.
On the issue of whether Trident would remain in the Clyde he said: “It is up to the individual parties to say what they would do with Trident should the people of Scotland vote for independence.”
But Mr McDougall complained that the SNP and pro-independence campaign was keeping important information back.
He said: “Every time we raise a question we have been told we have to wait until 2013.”
He told the committee was not sure if all those questions on issues such as defence, currency and Scotland’s place in the European Union would be answered in 2013.
However, for the pro-independence side Mr Jenkins conceded that “the what of independence has to be spelled out”
He said that issues such as the monarchy, which the SNP have already said would be maintained, need to be made clear.
But he said many of the details came under the “why of independence” which he said would be “at the heart of the debate” and did not need to be spelled out in the same way.
The two campaign leaders said that the proposed franchise meaning that only those who live in Scotland can vote in the referendum was “the right one” and agreed that all 16 and 17 year olds should be given a vote.
Mr McDougall pointed out for child protection reasons some 16-year-olds would need to be kept off the publicly available electoral register.
But he added: “I think this campaign will be viewed through the lens of 16 and 17 year olds ticking the box for the first time.”