Pressure builds on Darling over controversial No campaign donation

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   By a Newsnet reporter

Pressure is increasing on Better Together head Alistair Darling over a controversial £500,000 donation paid to the anti-independence campaign.

Scottish National Party Westminster leader Angus Robertson has formally written to the Chair of the No campaign calling on him to hand back a donation which was paid to the pro-Union group by businessman Ian Taylor.

The letter follows claims relating to past business practices of Mr Taylor’s company Vitol, which in 2007 was found guilty of breaching the UN sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein.  The company is also facing allegations that it paid $1 million to a Serbian war criminal to help secure a secret oil deal.

In his letter, Mr Robertson has pointed out that one of Mr Darling’s own Labour colleagues at Westminster, John Mann MP, a member of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committe, last September called on the Conservative party to return donations they had received from Mr Taylor.  Mr Mann accused Mr Taylor’s company of “backing corrupt regimes”.

Mr Mann’s criticism followed an episode in July 2012 that saw a subsidiary company of Vitol purchase a cargo of Iranian fuel oil, in what appeared to be a breach of the EU sanctions regime in place against Iran.

Although Vitol Oil admitted that it had allowed its subsidiary company in Bahrein to purchase the fuel, the company denied that there was any wrong-doing.  Vitol Oil is a Swiss registered company and so was not legally bound by EU imposed sanctions.

In a statement at the time, a spokesperson for the company said: “At the time of purchase it did not contravene any applicable sanctions.”

As reported in the Telegraph, the incident caused Labour MP John Mann to describe Vitol Oil of “immoral” trade and “backing corrupt regimes”.  Mr Mann demanded that the Conservative party return donations it had received from Mr Taylor, describing them as “dirty money”.

Mr Robertson has now called on Alistair Darling to hold an investigation into the circumstances of the loan to Better Together and to clarify whether the Labour MP approved of it’s acceptance.

Mr Robertson said:

“Presumably Alistair Darling agrees with his Labour Westminster colleague, John Mann MP, who as recently as last September called on the Tories to hand back donations from Mr Taylor.

“If Mr Darling does agree with his Labour colleague that the Tories should hand their donations back, he cannot possibly believe it is right for the No campaign to hold on to their half-a-million pounds from Mr Taylor – who is the No campaign’s principal donor.

“That is why I have now written to Alistair Darling, calling on him to hand this donation back pending a full internal investigation into the circumstances of the donation, and a pledge to make the findings public.

“Mr Darling met Mr Taylor before this donation was made, so he bears personal responsibility for it. We need to know if any of these issues – such as Vitol paying Serbian war criminal Arkan $1 million, or avoiding UK tax through an ‘offshore pay scheme’ for over a decade – were discussed.

“And we need to know if Mr Darling approves of these activities – in terms of the tax avoidance issue, for example, he is after all a former Chancellor.

“The credibility of the No campaign is on the line, and it is time for Mr Darling to do the right thing.”

Last night Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall accused the SNP and those “at the top of the Yes campaign” of mounting a campaign of ‘smear and fear’.  Yesterday the organisation published an article which claimed there was a “co-ordinated dirty tricks campaign by the nationalists”, and attempted to link criticisms of the donation to a recent act of vandalism against the offices of the Scotsman newspaper.

The newspaper’s sister paper, the Scotland on Sunday caused fury throughout Scotland last weekend when it depicted the Scottish flag with a nazi symbol in place of the cross of St Andrew.

Mr Taylor’s donation of £500,000 to the “Better Together” campaign is by far the largest individual donation received by the organisation.  60% of the campaign’s funds come from just two individuals who do not reside in Scotland, Mr Taylor and author CJ Sansom, who lives in Sussex.  In 2012 Mr Sansom published the novel “Dominion”, which depicted the Scottish National Party as collaborators with a British Nazi state.  Mr Sansom has donated £161,000 to the anti-independence campaign.

In reply to criticisms of its acceptance of Mr Taylor’s donation, a spokesperson for Better Together said: “This was a donation from a private individual. It was given and received in good faith.”

62% of Yes Scotland’s funding likewise comes from just two individuals, lottery winners Christine and Colin Weir, both of whom reside in Scotland.