Pressure on Alex Salmond grows over knighthood for Souter

THE SNP came under increased pressure yesterday over the Scottish Government's "controversial" request to hand a knighthood to the party's biggest donor, Stagecoach owner Sir Brian Souter.

Ministers faced calls to publish all information about the SNP government's official request for the bus company tycoon to be included in the Queen's Birthday Honours in June.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray accused SNP ministers of trying to "hoodwink the public" over the nomination of Sir Brian, after a previous "attempt to hide" the role First Minister Alex Salmond's administration played in the move to honour the Stagecoach owner for services to transport and the voluntary sector.

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The SNP government's nomination of Mr Souter, who has given more than 1?million to the SNP, including a 500,000 pledge to this year's election campaign, was revealed in a letter from the UK government Cabinet Office to Labour MP Cathy Jamieson.

Mr Gray yesterday dismissed an earlier claim from a spokesman for Mr Salmond that SNP ministers had not had anything to do with the nomination as "laughable".

He said: "The SNP must come clean over why they denied being involved in any way, shape or form in this honour. The SNP must publish all information they have about why their government nominated Brian Souter, who knew what, and why they tried to cover it up.

"The attempt to hide the involvement of the Scottish Government simply shows that they knew all along how suspicious this is. If they have nothing to hide, why did they try to hide it?"

Mr Gray also criticised the SNP's links with Sir Brian, who previously helped to bankroll the campaign in 2000 to keep Section 28 - the controversial law that banned local councils from promoting homosexuality. He said: "This was always a controversial honour not only because Mr Souter has bankrolled the SNP, donating over 1m to the party, but also because of his anti-gay views. Now we see that the Scottish Government was at the heart of the controversy.

"Their earlier denials were designed to hoodwink the public. We are today asked to believe that the SNP government made a nomination and just weeks later Brian Souter made one of the biggest donations the SNP have ever received - and it is all just coincidence.

"The idea that Alex Salmond was blissfully unaware that his biggest paymaster was nominated for a knighthood by the government he runs is laughable.However, SNP MP Angus MacNeil repeated claims made by the Scottish Government that the nomination of Sir Brian had not been "political" and was the "responsibility" of a senior civil servant.

He said: "When the SNP came to office in 2007 we quite rightly took ourselves out of the process of honours appointments. In fact, the system is designed to stop political nominations by being a fully independent process and is the sole responsibility of the Permanent Secretary.

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"That process is as distant from Scottish ministers as it is possible and rightly so. SNP ministers have nominated nobody.

"Labour's attack is completely ludicrous and reflects on how they think and operate. As SNP ministers have made no nominations since 2007 Labour's questions fall at the first hurdle."

But Green MSP Patrick Harvie said that Mr MacNeil's claim that Mr Salmond had no role in handing the honour to Sir Brian was "implausible".

He added: "It seems implausible that civil servants working to SNP ministers recommended Brian Souter for a knighthood without taking account of the fact he was already the largest single donor to their political masters."