£500,000 war chest for Alex Salmond

BRIAN Souter, the co-founder of Stagecoach, is to bankroll the SNP's Holyrood election campaign with a personal donation of up to £500,000, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

In what represents a major campaign boost to Alex Salmond ahead of the 5 May poll, the entrepreneur says he will match individual donations to the SNP campaign up to the sum of half-a-million pounds.

The move should ensure the SNP builds a 1 million war chest by the end of March, when the election campaign officially begins.

Four years ago, Souter's donation of 625,000 to the SNP's campaign was seen by many as the crucial financial muscle which propelled Salmond to power, accounting for more than 1 in every 3 spent by the party during the campaign.

The fresh cash pledge will once again allow SNP campaign chiefs to pile in funds to key battleground seats, buy up advertising space and swamp swing voters with key campaigning messages. It will bring major relief to the party, coming a year after Souter said he would not be donating to its election campaign at the Westminster elections.

But Souter's decision is sure to lead to mounting concern about the influence one individual can have over a party. Souter, who has an estimated fortune of more than 700m, has long courted controversy, particularly as the key figure in the campaign ten years ago to retain Section 28, the law which barred the promotion of homosexuality.

In a statement last night, Souter said: "I am offering to match the giving of other members and friends of the SNP pound for pound up to a total of 500,000.

"Alex Salmond and his team have run a professional administration at Holyrood for the last four years and freezing the council tax has benefited every Scottish family by more than 300 per year.

"Furthermore, they have delivered most of their promises despite being a minority government."

He added: "I believe Alex deserves another kick of the ball and as we face challenging times we need the type of strong leadership he has demonstrated."

Labour is also hoping to raise 1m before May, and officials said yesterday that donations were "coming in thick and fast".

However, senior party figures believe that, like four years ago, they will fail to match the SNP's fundraising. Then, the SNP outspent Labour for the first time - trebling their outlay on the election campaign from 473,000 in 2003 to 1.4m.

Labour spent 1.1m, the Tories spent 602,000 and the Lib Dems spent 304,000. By law, the parties are only allowed to spend up to a maximum of 1.5m.

The decision to link Souter's funding to individual donations, in a fundraising drive to be known as "Double Your Donation", will be seen as a clear attempt to limit criticism that the party has become overly reliant on the support of one man. The SNP claimed last night that in 2007 it had received 42,000 individual donations.This time, it says Souter's match funding will apply to donations of 500 or less up to the start of the campaign on 1 April.

However, there are bound to be fresh questions over Souter's huge influence within the party.

In 2007, after the donation was announced, the SNP omitted plans for tighter bus regulation from its Holyrood manifesto, despite the policy being endorsed at the SNP's party conference.

Souter, whose company would have been hit by the plans, had previously been highly critical of the regulatory measure, but the SNP insisted afterwards that the decision to ditch the policy was not linked to his cash support.

Last night, Salmond described Souter as "one of the outstanding entrepreneurs of his generation with a passionate belief in Scotland. This offer to match every small donation the SNP receives up to 500,000 will power our fundraising for this campaign, and double the impact of every penny put towards re-electing an SNP government in May."