Better Together’s Morality Vacuum

Today figures released by YouGov found that 43% of Scots believe that Better Together should return its £500,000 donation from Tory donor Ian Taylor. 34% believe that they should not. These findings place even more pressure on the no campaign to answer the serious questions raised by National Collective over four weeks ago. However, we must also reflect on why political donations matter. It requires reflection on the morality vacuum at the heart of ‘Better Together’.

A lot has happened in those four weeks to obscure the gaze of hacks, politicos and activists. Following our simple questions regarding serious public issues – international peace and justice, the breaking of international sanctions, tax avoidance, cash-for-access at Westminster and business deals with rogue regimes – a series of diversions and distractions have been thrown in our way.

We have already dealt with some of the attempts to sidetrack our questions.  Today – in the face of the public findings – some have once again sought to blur discussion on the morality of political donations with silly comparisons with innocent children’s orchestras and tweed jackets.

The real issue here is morality. Is this political donation from Ian Taylor moral? Do Better Together think there is a moral dimension to the five serious areas we raised in our original article? What is Mr Taylor’s position on these five issues we raised?

From Better Together we have been met with silence. From Mr Taylor we were met with legal threats.  From the Scottish press there has, with a few noble exceptions, been disinterest.

This is the morality vacuum: a world where legal actions are given an ethical free pass. It is a viewpoint which transcends the constitutional divide. 34% of Scots think the Taylor donation is fine. In 2012 34% of those surveyed by YouGov believed that there should be no financial limits on political donations.  To such people, freedom becomes the freedom to exert power and influence with personal wealth. It’s a motif of the political right and the free market in action. Alex Massie and David Torrance, for instance, saw no issue with the Taylor donation when moral questions were raised by National Collective. Labour List even attacked the referendum for its donation limits.  Some see no inevitable conflict when vast sums of money, huge global corporations and the political establishment share financial and political interests.

I disagree. I think there is a moral problem when corporate power and wealth hold vastly superior opportunities for lobbying within our political institutions. 70% of the public in a YouGov survey agree that donors have too much influence.  The American system epitomises such corruption – where Al Gore recently stated that corporate influence has “hacked” U.S. politics.

In Scotland opinion is mixed. People of all persuasions and parties are susceptible to the mantra of ‘take bad money, and do good.’ The SNP previously took money from Brian Souter, despite his past dealings with the ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign. The burden which arises in such cases is threefold: there must be transparency, there must be a declaration of interests and good must be done.

In the case of Souter, SNP politicians distanced themselves from his position. Now they must legislate for equal marriage. That would be the good outcome indirectly achieved from bad money. I hope they will and I have personally marched and messaged to encourage them to do so. This is the extra pressure that must be placed on politicians. In the case of Ian Taylor the transparency, interests and good outcome is far less clear.

Henry McLeish and Elaine Smith  distanced themselves from Taylor’s donation. However, in terms of transparency and interests, Better Together have failed to answer any of the questions we raised regarding how the donation was solicited. Alistair Darling met with Ian Taylor on Harris prior to the donation. What was discussed? Were Better Together aware of Vitol’s past with Akran, the grand larceny verdict and avoiding tax? Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation pinpoints concern on transparency here.

There are also plenty of vested interests at play in such a donation. It can come as no surprise that these appear murky and suspicious when simple calls for transparency are ignored.

In terms of the justification for the ‘public good’ achieved through this donation, the reasons have been sparse. Labour friends of mine justify the donation through their antipathy towards the SNP. However, this ignores the plurality of internationalists, socialists and others of great conscience on the yes side. To dismiss their concerns is intellectually and morally disappointing.  It is a concern when political expediency and self-interest so convincingly trumps ethical concerns. ‘Winning at all costs’ is not a fit justification for a political campaign.

This – to draw a comparison – is why the International Criminal Court exists. Arkan was indicted on twenty-four counts of ‘crimes against humanity’ because we reject the notion that war is a moral vacuum. Jus ad bellum, jus in bello: there are some military acts so vile that they merit prosecution for causing deep human misery and pain. The justice of war is a moral question. The use of white phosphorus by British troops in Iraq is a moral question. Victory – in politics or war – is not a justification for abandoning moral precepts of what is right and what is human.

Sadly, it seems clear that victory at all costs is the Better Together mantra. This has become clear not only in their handling of the Taylor story – and their attempts to manipulate its reporting – but in their determination to propagate scare story after scare story and conflate all support for independence with the SNP. This is not a debate that Scotland can be proud of.

In the next 500 days this contrast will resurface in many forms. Yes Scotland and Better Together perceive moral questions differently. There is one example of this that will stick in my mind.

Amidst the stress and emotion of being threatened with legal action I watched the donations debate between Blair McDougall and Blair Jenkins on Scotland Tonight. I was eager for Jenkins to make it clear on air that yes campaigners were receiving legal threats from the no campaign’s biggest donor.

I watched and waited. Instead of attacking, Blair Jenkins was steady and composed. He spoke about a positive campaign. He spoke about building a better nation. At that moment I felt saddened. An opportunity to put Better Together on the back foot had been lost.

It had been lost, but Jenkins was right. He rejected the chance of a short-term headline and short-term pressure on the no campaign, in favour of a long-term plan to win people’s support and trust by September 2014. He took a moral decision and it was the right one. Winning independence for Scotland will mean nothing unless it is achieved on terms which allow us all to build a better nation after the vote. The Better Together campaign have prioritised short-term attacks, stories driven by fear and an antipathy to the SNP. As Stephen Noon has written recently, politics requires so much more than that. It requires composure, confidence and a vision. That night Blair Jenkins provided that he has that combination.

We have 500 days ahead where this distinction will grow.  The referendum is a fork in the road where Scotland can travel in two directions: with Westminster or with the full political powers of an independent country. Only one campaign seeks to empower the Scottish people amid a culture of cynicism, doubt and disempowerment. It’s a choice we face over our country’s future. Within that choice, morality matters.

Michael Gray
National Collective



About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.