SNP independence fund row: Political parties should be subject to same rules as charities over donations – Scotsman comment

The row over some £650,000 donated by members of the public to the SNP poses serious questions for all political parties and, indeed, democracy itself.

The row over funds raised by the SNP for an independence campaign shows the need for rules over donations to be changed (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)
The row over funds raised by the SNP for an independence campaign shows the need for rules over donations to be changed (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

The money was raised by crowdfunding campaigns between 2017 and 2020, ostensibly on the basis that it would be spent on a future independence campaign.

However, after it was revealed the party had less than £100,000 in the bank, the SNP has now admitted that the money has basically been spent.

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Given the SNP’s raison d’etre is to achieve independence, some may argue that this is fair enough – the party is constantly campaigning for independence and they need funds to do that. Others may view this as sophistry.

However, the key question is not what politicians or members of the commentariat think. Rather it is whether those who actually donated to the funds would feel deceived if it turns out that their money went on paperclips at party HQ, rather than being saved for campaigning ahead of any future independence referendum, as they may have expected.

The SNP’s commitment to spend “an amount equivalent” on independence campaigning in future suggests they recognise this could be an issue, at least for some donors, although it also raises a question about the terms on which this new sum would be acquired.

If it is raised as general funding, but ring-fenced for independence campaigning and not spent, donors may object in the event the party starts to get into financial difficulties or curtails its general activities. If it is raised as an independence fund, this would not serve as a replacement for the donations used for general party funding.

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Such issues do not currently arise in the charity sector – at least not legally – because of much stricter rules about the ring-fencing of funds. If money is raised for a specific purpose, it cannot be spent on something else and charities are required to produce a detailed audit trail to prove the cash has been used in the way the donors were told it would be.

In days gone by, it was not really possible to monitor the ‘sales pitch’ of small-scale party fundraisers organising a whip-round in the pub. But then the amounts involved would have been much smaller so any wrongdoing would have been less serious.

The arrival of internet crowdfunding sites has made it easier to donate to political parties – as well as charities and other good causes – than ever before, thereby increasing the potential size of the amounts raised but also the scrutiny of the sales pitch.

All parties need to recognise this and accept that raising money from the public in era of crowdfunding ought to be entirely transparent with rules if not the same then on a par with those for charities.

Failure to do so will only dissuade people from making political donations and could potentially encourage mis-use of funds.

Public cynicism about politics is already a serious problem for democracy and one that all parties should be working to reduce. Changing the rules may help, but the situation would be significantly better if politicians kept to the letter of their word, whether legally obliged to do so or not.

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