The right-wing business tycoons behind Alex Salmond’s independence campaign
At first sight, Rupert Murdoch and Alex Salmond do not make obvious bedfellows. Murdoch is the right-wing media mogul whose outlets, from the News of the World to Fox News, slap down progressive policy across the world. Salmond is the visionary leader promising a more socialist society for Scotland if it can break free of the rest of the UK.
But Murdoch's trip to Scotland last week was just the latest stage in a long friendship between the two men, in which back-room efforts to help Murdoch's business goals coincide with favourable media coverage.
Salmond enjoys this type of relationship with several wealthy right-wing figures from across the world. He "called in" a golf course for Donald Trump above the wishes of local residents. He accepted donations from Stagecoach boss Brian Souter shortly before changing SNP policy on bus regulation. The list goes on.
The full extent of Salmond's friendship with Murdoch only really came to light during the phone-hacking scandal. A month after the News of the World shut down it was revealed Salmond had held over two dozen meetings with Murdoch, his son James – who ran News International and BSkyB – and other Murdoch editors and executives.
During this time the SNP developed a secret policy of backing Murdoch's BSkyB bid, which was not to be made public. Emails released by News Corporation showed Salmond agreed to make a call to Jeremy Hunt, then media secretary, to support the takeover attempt.
Meanwhile, social events continued apace. Salmond and Murdoch exchanged gushing letters, held private dinners and offered each other tickets to sporting events. Salmond was Murdoch's guest of honour for an unveiling of his company's new printing presses. Murdoch was given tickets by Salmond to see a National Theatre play on Iraq. He then sent him tickets to the Ryder Cup golf tournament as an official Scottish government guest. The media mogul was the first minister's guest of honour at a special pageant in Edinburgh castle. Murdoch called Salmond the "most brilliant politician in UK".
The friendship coincided with a period of growing support for the SNP from Murdoch's Scottish newspaper. In 2007 the Sun put the SNP logo in a noose on its front page with a dire warning about calamity if Scots opted for the nationalists. But by the next election it abandoned its support for Labour and swung behind Salmond. Editor David Dinsmore wrote to him days afterwards congratulating him on his "astonishing victory".
As the 'Yes camp gained ground in the polls last week, Murdoch said a vote for independence would be a "huge black eye for whole political establishment" and then added: "Everything [is] up for grabs". It's unclear what he meant by this, but in the same week Salmond went on the offensive against the BBC, refusing to answer Nick Robinson's questions at a press conference and threatening to force it into an inquiry about Treasury leaks. On Sunday, a large demonstration of 'Yes' supporters took place outside the BBC building, in which large posters of Robinson were raised singling out the journalist for allegedly biased reporting.
Accusations of cronyism have long haunted Salmond. His relationship with Stagecoach boss Souter has proved hardly less problematic than his one with Murdoch.
Souter founded Stagecoach with his sister and proceeded to take full advantage of the deregulation of bus services in the UK. He ran free or low-fare bases on local routes to push other firms out the market – a practice deemed "predatory, deplorable and against the public interest" by the Monopolies Commission.
The tycoon had a sideline in anti-gay rights campaigning. He spent a million pounds organising a private referendum across Scotland against attempts to repeal the infamous Section 28 law outlawing the 'promotion of homosexuality'. He warned society was in danger of "imploding" into a "Babylonian-Greek" culture where sex is "primarily a recreational activity", if "traditional marriage" continued to decline.
In 2007, Salmond received a big donation from Souter and called him "one of the outstanding entrepreneurs of his generation". The donation came not long after the party opposed the right for gay couples to be given equal treatment by Catholic adoption agencies and the snubbing of a gay rights debate. One month after the donation, the SNP dropped its commitment for increased regulation of the bus network.
Similar complaints were made when Salmond rode roughshod over the wishes of local residents and planners to "call in" the decision to approve Donald Trump's golf complex plan on the Aberdeenshire coast.
The area was one of special scientific and environmental sensitivity. Councillors rejected the development. Salmond's government overruled them.
Two documentary films were made about the row by Anthony Baxter. To his credit, Trump did at least agree to talk to the director. But after four years of asking for an interview, Salmond refuses to meet with him.
"Whatever you may think of the Trumps, they cooperated fully and answered all of our questions.
"The same can't be said of Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond, whose government made the decision to allow Trump to destroy a protected conservation site of special scientific interest, in order to build Aberdeenshire's 62nd golf course.
"Our efforts to interview the first minister took up several months. To begin with, his office requested that any interview be played in its entirety in the final film. After we refused, his office scheduled, postponed, rescheduled, then finally cancelled the interview at the last minute.
"Among other things, we wanted to ask the first minister on camera about the effect of the Trump golf course development on local residents, including a 90-year-old woman who hasn't had a proper water supply for four years, and about what happened to the 6,000 jobs his government promised when approving the development."
Salmond's assessment of good business practice was raised again when it emerged how strongly he egged on the calamitous acquisition of ABN Amro, which sunk the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).
In 2007, Salmond wrote to Fred 'the Shred' Goodwin:
"I want you to know I am watching events closely on the ABN front. It is in Scottish interests for RBS to be successful, and I would like to offer any assistance my office can provide. Good luck with the bid."
It was a remarkable letter to have sent. The Scottish first minister was advising an FTSE 100 company to load up on debt and make a highly questionable acquisition which would later come to destroy it. A few months and £45 billion in taxpayer's money later, Salmond admitted he regretted it. But for many businessmen, the link between friendship with Salmond and policy-making was clear enough.
Many wealthy right-wingers behind the Scottish independence campaign have a very different view of Scotland to the one being promoted by SNP's official literature. Social democracy and a generous welfare system are nowhere to be seen in this account. Instead, independence will open up the economy to further private interests as Scotland cuts down on regulations to attract foreign investment.
As Michael Fry, the founder of independence site Wealthy Nation, said: "We must make clear to voters that they can most readily make their country better by emulating their Victorian forebears in the pursuit of profitable opportunities."
Jim McColl, who is domiciled in Monaco with his £800 million fortune, is an official economic adviser to Salmond. His vision of Scotland is very far away from the aims of campaigners on the street. It is also very different to Salmond's rhetoric, although not to his actions. After all, despite demanding more tax powers for a fairer society, the SNP leader's only actual tax policy is to cut corporation tax by three per cent below the rest of the UK.
The PR for the 'Yes' camp remains resolutely left-wing and idealistic. But behind the scenes, there are men of a quite different character egging it on.