The philanthropist


    Kenneth Roy

    ‘Irvine Laidlaw is pleased to announce that Her Majesty The Queen has approved that a Life Barony be conferred….

    Kenneth Roy

    ‘Irvine Laidlaw is pleased to announce that Her Majesty The Queen has approved that a Life Barony be conferred upon him. His title will be The Rt Hon The Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay’. This was how Scotland’s richest man – or second richest; accounts vary – let his friends know the good news in 2004. It was reported at the time that he had been recommended for the peerage by Iain Duncan Smith,  the new Work and Pensions Secretary, better known in recent years for his strong views on the Glasgow poor. 
         The year before, plain Mr Laidlaw was the subject of an adulatory profile in the Scotsman headed: ‘What else shall I do with my money?’. The Banffshire-born tycoon explained his intention of selling his international conference business and giving his money to charity. He predicted that, by 2006, he would be bankrolling his charitable foundation for disadvantaged young people to the tune of £20 million a year. ‘He is becoming increasingly determined to give something back to the country of his birth,’ noted the paper. 
         The article did mention that Mr Laidlaw was based in Monaco, but failed to question why. It does not seem to have occurred to the author of the piece that rich men who choose to have an address in that horrid little haven do so for one reason and one reason only. It did, however, occur to the Lords Appointments Commission to wonder about the new peer’s residential status. We are now told that, before the commission approved his appointment, Mr Laidlaw gave a commitment to move to Britain and pay tax in this country. The commission says that it would never have approved the peerage had it known that he would not return.
         He did not return. 
         His place of residence, which was always generally known, was set aside in the larger interests of philanthropy. In 2003, the Scottish Executive endorsed his plan for a Laidlaw Youth Project, put £50,000 into it at once, and seconded a public official to lend a helping hand. Many established charities would have been entitled to feel envious and perhaps a little puzzled. Mr Laidlaw, as he then was, being so rich and philanthropic, why did he require the support of the Scottish Executive? Why didn’t he just do it himself? 
    The adulation continued. In 2006, he was ‘inducted’ into something called  the Entrepreneurial Exchange Hall of Fame at the ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ awards in Glasgow. Again there were approving press reports of how Lord Laidlaw intended to give away his personal fortune to charitable causes. One report compared him to Andrew Carnegie. 
         The Laidlaw Youth Project (or Trust as it became known) did support various activities for young people, and the Scottish Executive kept putting money into it. The fact that the project was the inspiration of a tax exile was never mentioned.
         Lord Laidlaw, as well as assisting disadvantaged young Scots, was also a prominent supporter of a number of politicians. One of his companies gave £10,000 to the Tory leadership campaign of the man who is now Britain’s prime minister and £25,000 to the London mayoral campaign of Boris Johnson. William Hague, Britain’s new foreign secretary, was given access to Lord Laidlaw’s private jet. There was nothing in the least improper about any of this – indeed,  judging by a photograph I have in front of me, Mr Hague was visibly pleased to be seen in the company of the kilted peer. And why not? On 27 November 2007 Lord Laidlaw sent a cheque to the Conservative Party for £2,990,532.90.
         He was a particular fan of the Scottish Conservative Party. Whether it was true that he ‘single handedly’ bankrolled the party in Scotland, as a newspaper once claimed, is doubtful; but he was a consistently generous patron. It might, of course, be argued that Lord Laidlaw could afford to be. The amount he has saved in UK taxes is estimated at £50 million. 
         It was only after he was given his peerage that questions began to be asked about Lord Laidlaw’s tax affairs. The questions became more insistent after he confessed that he had been fighting ‘sexual addiction’ for most of his life and asked for the world’s forgiveness and understanding. In an apparently unrelated development, the Laidlaw Youth Project, having devoted £6 million to support young people, seems to have been wound up after only six years. 
         Lord Laidlaw, in an exchange of correspondence with the Lords Appointments Commission, has cited ‘a number of personal and political reasons’ for his failure to return to Britain. Lord Stevenson, the chairman of the commission, has called these reasons ‘irrelevant’ and, since the new Constitutional Reform Act makes it obligatory for members of the House of Lords to be full British residents by 7 July, Lord Laidlaw has had to face a clear choice. 
         He has made his choice. He is ‘not prepared to come under the new rules’. He will therefore surrender his seat in the Lords. He will, however, be able to keep his title. Since no one has called this an outrage, I will. This is an outrage.
    A modern morality story? For sure. What did for Lord Laidlaw was not his intense dislike of paying tax in the UK and the measures he took to avoid it, which the political establishment chose to overlook for years; nor his unfotunate failure to live up to the gullible media’s expectations of him; nor the abandonment of his admirable dream to become a latter-day Carnegie. What did for him was a silly sex scandal. A very British modern morality story, then.
         Although Lord Laidlaw must lament many aspects of his fate, he is entitled to feel quietly satisfied that his various proteges, in whose careers he invested, are now in the happy position of running Britain. I hope they are grateful to The Rt Hon The Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay and will join the rest of the nation in extending our forgiveness and understanding.

    Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.{jcomments on}