The row over cash handed to the anti-independence campaign by the head of a company revealed to have had dealings with a Serbian war criminal has escalated with the intervention of former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.
Lord Ashdown has claimed that anyone who didn’t know that corruption extended throughout the Balkan government, at the time a company headed by Better Together donor Ian Taylor was conducting business with its officials, was “naïve”.
The Lib Dem peer is the latest figure to question a controversial donation of half a million pounds given to Better Together by Mr Taylor.
Days after the businessman was revealed as the biggest donor to the No campaign, led by Labour MP Alistair Darling, it emerged his company Vitol, had been involved in business deals with several Middle East regimes including former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
It also emerged that Mr Taylor’s company had paid one million dollars to Serbian was criminal Arkan who was indicted on multiple counts of rape and murder. New revelations uncovered by Herald journalist Robbie Dinwoodie reveal that Vitol then signed a supply deal with the Bosnian Serb government just months before Milan Bogicevic was stripped of office for harbouring war criminals.
The person who removed Bogicevic, who had been appointed Prime Minister in January 2003, was Lord Ashdown himself who was the UN High Representative at the time and had accused Bogicevic of harbouring war criminals.
In all, Lord Ashdown removed 61 officials, mostly members of the SDS, from the Republika Srpska [RS] government. The sackings were Ashdown’s penalty imposed on the RS for failing to arrest or hand over a single indicted war criminal.
Speaking to the Herald, the senior Lib Dem politician said: “Anybody who did business in the Balkans who didn’t realise there were networks of corruption that extended into any and all governments was naive.”
The Lib Dem peer said it was appropriate for the donations to Better Together to be questioned.
The intervention of his former Lib Dem leader is potentially embarrassing for Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie who will come under pressure to confirm whether he agrees with Lord Ashdown.
The donation to Better Together has already led to splits within the Labour party with at least one MP describing a similar donation given by Ian Taylor to the Conservatives as “dirty money”. Labour MP John Mann called on the Tory party to hand back the money.
Former Labour MP Henry McLeish questioned whether the Labour party should be seen to be accepting money from Mr Taylor, given his company’s background, which also includes tax avoidance in the UK.
However both Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Labour MP Alistair Darling, who heads the pro-Union alliance, have said they are happy to have the financial backing of the Tory donor. Ms Lamont described the half million pounds as an “appropriate donation”, whilst Mr Darling has said he is “pleased” to have Mr Taylor’s backing.
Mr Taylor agreed to hand the money over to Better Together at a private meeting with Mr Darling on the Isle of Lewis.
The issue of Mr Taylor’s suitability as a political donor has been raised in the Scottish parliament and the House of Commons. However UK Prime Minister David Cameron echoed the stance of his Labour allies in Better Together by refusing to hand the money back.