ALISTAIR Darling has claimed the Better Together campaign can’t match the financial muscle of its opponents in the Yes camp because of the SNP government’s “access to public funds” to promote independence.
He said the use of taxpayers’s cash meant an “uneven contest” in the referendum, after it emerged the government paid £84,160.80 for billboard adverts to promote Alex Salmond’s independence white paper.
He also attacked the SNP for using public funds to cover the £1.25 million production, delivery and advertising costs associated with the white paper.
Mr Darling portrayed the No campaign as the underdogs in the referendum, suggesting it would not be able to match the Yes camp’s war chest.
The Yes Scotland group revealed it had raised £1.7m in April last year, while the unionist Better Together campaign, led by Mr Darling, said it had £2.7m at the end of last year.
Yes Scotland is yet to publish details of its latest financial backers, but last year it received £1m from the Ayrshire Euromillions winners Christine and Colin Weir, who also gave a seven-figure donation to the independence campaign last month and £1m to the SNP in 2011.
Mr Darling said the £84,160.80 spent by the Scottish Government on billboard adverts carrying white paper slogans such as “Scotland’s future in your hands” was giving an unfair advantage to the independence campaign.
The Edinburgh South West MP said: “I’m concerned there is a huge disparity. We are getting more and more individual donations every day – a lot of people are sending us money, but we can’t match having access to public funds.
“What I find irritating that it is such an uneven contest, where they can use the power of government and the financial power of government alongside their own party stuff.”
Mr Darling, a minister for 13 years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said the UK government would not have been allowed to use public funds to pay for a unionist equivalent of the SNP’s white paper.
He said: “Look at the white paper. That is a manifesto more than anything else, yet … public funds were taken to pay for it.
“We wouldn’t be allowed to do that. And, I know from my time in government, the permanent secretary would be down on you like a ton of bricks if you attempt to confuse the two. I don’t think it’s right – it simply isn’t right.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman dismissed Mr Darling’s claims and said any expenditure related to the referendum was to help inform voters.
She said: “It is only right that there should be public information provided to ensure that as many people as possible are able to have access to the arguments and make an informed decision on 18 September.”
Mr Darling, speaking at a lunch for political journalists, also suggested unemployment in an independent Scotland would be worse then during the Thatcher era in the 1980s, when there was a widespread loss of heavy industry such as pit and steelworks closures.
The former chancellor suggested firms would shift their Scottish operations south due to uncertainty about business regulation and the SNP’s plans for a currency union with the remainder of the UK, which the three main unionist parties have rejected.
But an SNP spokesman said: “As the man who promised to inflict spending cuts that were ‘deeper and tougher’ than those seen under Margaret Thatcher – and as someone who is working hand in glove with the Tories in this campaign – Alistair Darling is the very last person who should be making comparisons to the 1980s.”