Euan McColm: Independence campaigns pay price for money entering debate

IF THERE’S one thing sure to set even the closest friends against each other, it’s a disagreement over money. We’ve all seen it happen and quite a few of us, frankly, are still angry we’re never going to see that 50 quid again.

Campaigners on both sides of the Scottish independence debate have spent months insisting on the friendliest rules of engagement. Debate must be positive, they’ve told us. There’s no room for negativity.

But last week money came into the mix and all pretence of good-natured, constructive politics evaporated.

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The issue of donors – who’s given, and how much – is at the root of some of the most ill-tempered exchanges of the debate and has led to claims of censorship, as well as threatened legal action by one of the biggest contributors to the pro-union Better Together campaign.

Let’s come back to that in a moment. First, let’s recap the rules – both real and self-imposed – over who can give cash to the campaign teams.

Simply, they can take cash from anyone, anywhere. They can take £50 from a pensioner in Howwood or £500,000 from a businesswoman in Hawaii, should they choose. There will be spending limits, just shy of £1.5 million, for the final 16 weeks of campaigning, but until then Better Together and Yes Scotland can accept and spend whatever they’re able to get their hands on.

Each campaign, however, has applied its own rules. Blair McDougall, campaign director of Better Together, and Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins appeared on late night TV this week to describe and defend their respective positions.

The pro-union campaign will accept cash from any UK resident. The nationalists will take money only from those living in Scotland and eligible to vote; unless, strangely, the donor is giving less than £500, in which case Yes Scotland will be happy to accept. Pro-independence campaigners have attacked the No campaign’s decision to accept cash from south of the Border.

McDougall’s defence that a pro-union campaign should welcome support from all parts of the union seems solid enough. Those with an interest in preserving the union are located in every part of it.

There’s some neat spin from the Yes side here. Their “Scottish cash only” position creates a point of principle out of the reality that they’re unlikely to receive many donations from non-Scots inside the UK. Their argument also nudges the debate into Scotland vs England rather than unionist vs nationalist territory. We hear echoes of Robert Burns’s frequently recited “We’re bought and sold for English gold”.

The Yes Scotland position wobbles a ­little when it comes to that “Yes But” decision to take smaller sums from elsewhere. Members of American Caledonian societies, with their kilts and misty-eyed memories of Scotland as represented in films of the golden era of Hollywood, for example, will surely provide a steady stream of those £500 and under donations.

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On STV’s Scotland Tonight, Jenkins defended this apparent anomaly in Yes Scotland’s house rules by repeatedly using the unfortunate phrase “influential money”. The smaller sums coming from overseas did not represent “influential money” and so all was in keeping with his organisation’s principled stance.

If only Jenkins had paid as much attention to the backside of his argument as he did to its butter-wouldn’t-melt smile. If that’s his justification, we might ask, at what level does a donation to Yes Scotland become influential? And what degree of influence might such a donor be permitted to exert? It gets messy.

Donor lists published by both sides this past week were in keeping with their respective rules. Yes Scotland revealed it has raised more than £1.7m. Included is a £342,000 “in kind” donation from the SNP, around £112,000 from 7,000 small donors, £1m from lottery winners Christine and Colin Weir, and a further £280,000-plus from businessmen who’ve previously donated to the SNP.

Better Together has received donations in excess of £1.1m since its launch last June. Among some 9,500 supporters, one – businessman Ian Taylor of Vitol Oil – handed over £500,000.

It’s Taylor’s involvement that’s created the greatest tension between the campaigns, with the SNP demanding Better Together hand back his cash. They point to allegations Vitol gave money to Serbian war criminal Arkan the Tiger. Taylor has threatened legal action against a number of websites over the way in which they reported the Arkan claims. To some pro-independence campaigners – including some who should know better – this is evidence of a unionist plot to “shut down debate”.

In fact, it’s a reminder that websites are required to adhere to the same laws of defamation as mainstream publications.

The Yes-supporting website National Collective – run by a group of young “creatives” – is among those who’ve heard from Taylor’s lawyers. Hotter heads in the debate seem keen to create martyrs of the National Collective team, spinning out the “censorship” claim.

Those driving this myth are neither helping the site’s organisers – so far, among the most interesting and positive contributors to the campaign – nor improving the likelihood that wealthy business people will contribute more to either side’s coffers.

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From within Better Together comes the claim that Yes campaigners are involved in a co-ordinated smear campaign against anyone who dares contradict their position. And why, they ask, would anyone bother donating – to either side – in ­future if they face such vitriol from ­opponents?

As one key SNP figure conceded to me, there are no votes to be won or lost in rows over donors. But while nationalists are throwing what they can at Better Together, the No campaign finds itself bogged down. Yes campaigners don’t see the Taylor controversy amounting to a hill of beans, long term, but it has given their side a much needed lift.

It’s difficult to see how this row does anything but ingrain existing positions.

Surely, then, the risk to both sides is that voters turn off at the sort of muck-raking politics that’s always been much more fun for participants than it has for weary observers.

Twitter: @euanmccolm

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