By a Newsnet reporter
The anti-independence campaign – Better Together – is facing fresh calls to return a controversial donation to a Conservative backer after a poll showed more people wanted the money handed back than thought it should be kept.
The Yougov poll surveyed 1006 people and asked them if they believed a half million pound donation handed to the No campaign by Ian Taylor should be handed back after Mr Taylor’s company were discovered to have had links to a Serbian war criminal and the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The poll which was commissioned by the SNP, found that 43 per cent of Scots believe that No should hand the donation back, 34 per cent do not, and 23 per cent don’t know. In terms of those who express a definite opinion, this translates into 56 per cent believing that the No campaign should return the donation and 44 per cent saying it should be kept.
The donation has led to an ongoing row over whether it is morally acceptable to accept money from Mr Taylor who is Chief Executive of Swiss based company Vitol.
Shortly after Mr Taylor was revealed as the largest backer of the anti-independence group Better Together, it emerged his company had paid $1 million to Serbian war criminal Arkan to help secure an oil deal. It transpired that the $1m payment had been made to the Serbian war criminal to secure the deal to provide Slobadan Milosevic’s Serbia with fuel.
Arkan was indicted on multiple counts of rape and murder and other atrocities committed during the Balkans conflict.
Vitol was also forced to pay $17.5m in fines in 2007 after pleading guilty to providing kickbacks to officials in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq under the oil-for-food programme.
Vitol are also in discussion with HMRC over tax avoidance in the UK after using a controversial EBT mechanism that allowed the firm to avoid paying tax and national insurance for over a decade.
Mr Taylor’s donations had previously been described as “dirty money” by Labour MP John Mann after the businessman gave a similar amount to the Conservative party. The Labour MP called for Tory leader David Cameron to hand it back.
The comments from Mr Mann, who is a member of the Treasury Select Committee, has led to questions from the SNP who have asked why Labour seem happy to accept cash from a source that they themselves have previously condemned.
Labour leader of Better Together, MP Alistair Darling, has refused to hand back the money and insisted he is “pleased” to have Mr Taylor’s backing. Mr Darling secured the donation after holding a meeting with Mr Taylor on the Isle of Lewis.
However other senior Labour figures have questioned whether the Labour party should be seen to be endorsing donations from someone like Mr Taylor. Former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish has publicly questioned whether the cash was appropriate for Better Together and said:
“Labour has to be clear about whether this is the type of finance we want in the campaign…We need absolute transparency. We have to be very careful about what kind of money should be used. The unionist campaign has got to respond to legitimate questions and the criticism that’s been put forward.”
Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown last week agreed that it was legitimate to question the donation and described as “naive” anyone who would not have known about the corruption that existed in the Balkans at the time Arkan was paid one million dollars.
However Lord Ashdown’s party colleague, MSP Willie Rennie has publicly backed Mr Taylor’s backing for Better Together.
Commenting on the poll, SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson said:
“This is an extremely significant finding, and Alistair Darling would be wise to take heed of it.
“Mr Taylor is the No campaign’s principal donor, and nearly half of every single thing they do is being funded by money that most people in Scotland think should be handed back.
“This issue is not going away. The reputational damage this is causing the No campaign is outweighing the value of the money.”
Mr Robertson has previously raised the issue in the House of Commons and listed the crimes said to have been committed by the man paid $1 million by Mr Taylor’s company.
However Prime Minister David Cameron brushed off the criticism claiming it was a political stunt.
Mr Taylor’s £555,000 donation to the Conservative party resulted in him and other prominent party backers being invited to Downing Street for a private dinner with Mr Cameron.
Mr Cameron’s use of official government residences to hold dinners with Conservative backers led to claims of ‘cash for access’ from the Labour party. It emerged that a Tory Treasurer had promised one to one access to Mr Cameron to anyone giving the Tories over £200,000 – co-Treasurer Peter Cruddas resigned following the reports.
In a secretly recorded video, Mr Cruddas was heard to say: “Two hundred grand to 250 is premier league … what you would get is, when we talk about your donations the first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron/Osborne dinners.”
He added: “If you’re unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at No 10 – we feed all feedback to the policy committee.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband called for a full public inquiry into the cash for access allegations and for scrutiny of Conservative party donations and whether those handing over the cash had influenced government policy.
Commenting at the time, Mr Miliband said: “We’ve got an issue about the way in which government is being conducted, the way in which Downing Street is being used.”