It’s probably past time that we put this all in one post for easy reference.
Herald journalists with no idea what a story is, start here.
Our tale begins in March 2016, when lottery winners Chris and Colin Weir each issued a loan of £500,000 to the SNP, which logic would suggest was intended to assist with fighting that year’s Holyrood election seven weeks later.
(They’d made similar loans a year earlier for the UK election, which had been paid back five months later. They also donated £250,000 each in April 2017, a few days after Theresa May called a snap UK election for June that year.)
The SNP duly won the Holyrood election comfortably, although they lost their majority in the process. But it was seven more weeks on from then that things got interesting.
On the 23rd of June 2016, the UK voted narrowly to leave the European Union, while Scotland voted by a huge 24-point margin to remain. The next day Nicola Sturgeon made a speech in which she vowed to “do what it takes” to prevent Scotland being taken out against its will.
[SPOILER: Scotland was taken out of the EU against its will.]
She was clear about what that meant:
Nine months later, in March 2017, the Scottish Parliament duly voted in favour of a second independence referendum, to be held “before the UK leaves the EU”.
But we’ve skipped ahead slightly there. Because a couple of weeks earlier the SNP had already jumped the gun and launched a fundraiser for that second referendum without waiting for the Holyrood vote, aiming to raise an ambitious £1 million.
There was no ambiguity about what the money was supposed to be for. Even the domain name of the website – ref.scot – made the purpose clear, and every page emphasised that the fundraiser was for a future referendum campaign, not just general SNP funds.
Indeed, the SNP weren’t mentioned at all except in the tiny, legally-required small print at the bottom.
The site included a video:
It features an unequivocal pledge: that “when the options are clear”, there would be a choice between leaving the EU with the rest of the UK, and avoiding that fate via a second referendum on independence.
So everyone knew exactly what they were donating money for.
The fundraiser ran for three months before being abruptly shut down without warning in June 2017, the day after the snap general election Theresa May had called to try to give herself a stronger hand over Brexit negotiations, and at which the SNP had lost 21 of their 56 seats.
The SNP said that this was to ensure separation between the indyref fundraiser and fundraising for the general election, even though the page had been live right up to election day and had run alongside a separate election appeal.
For some unknown reason the ScotRef appeal was not restored after the election, even though the fund was less than halfway to its target. The last known total on the page was £482,000.
It was at this point that controversy started to arise.
Opposition parties accused the SNP of using the referendum fundraiser money in its election campaign – something the SNP furiously denied, insisting in the starkest terms that the £482,000 would be “frozen” in its accounts until such times as there was a new referendum.
The SNP has maintained that position in public ever since. Indeed, it had already been giving donors private assurances on the subject since almost immediately after the ref.scot appeal was launched.
Now, at this stage we need to rewind slightly. Remember back at the start of this article Chris and Colin Weir had each just loaned the SNP £500,000 for the 2016 Holyrood election? Well, at some point in 2016 one of those loans was paid back, as revealed by the party’s 2016 accounts.
For some reason the Electoral Commission website lists both loans as having been repaid on 1 December 2017, but the accounts show this is clearly incorrect – one was repaid before the end of 2016. (Unless the accounts are just flat-out false, of course, which we doubt.)
The 2017 accounts appear to back that assertion – they list loan repayments of just over £500,000 in each of 2016 and 2017, and they can only have been to the Weirs because nobody else has ever loaned anything like that much money to the SNP.
(Its biggest previous loan was £200,000 from the Royal Bank of Scotland in April 2011, again just before a Holyrood election and again paid back in August of the same year. The Weirs won the Euromillions in July 2011.)
So at this stage we have four quite interesting facts:
(1) In summer of 2017 the SNP owed half a million pounds to one of the Weirs, and unlike most of their election borrowings it hadn’t been paid back within six months – it had now been a year and a half.
(2) At the same time the party had just received a windfall of roughly half a million pounds from the “ringfenced” ref.scot fundraiser.
(3) Nobody knows where that half-million pounds is now, but it certainly doesn’t appear in the SNP’s most recent accounts, which show a cash balance of just £97,000 despite the ref.scot money supposedly having been “frozen” in the bank until such times as a second referendum campaign.
(4) The outstanding half-million pound loan was repaid in December 2017.
Could these facts by any chance be connected? We don’t know. But we do know that after April 2017 the Weirs never donated or loaned any money to the SNP again. Colin Weir, a lifelong member and supporter who sadly died in late 2019 with £41m in the bank, didn’t leave a penny of it to the party.
In terms of large donations Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership has alienated the general public and big business alike, to the extent that she’s become so desperate to get some sizeable cheques into the coffers she’ll do just about anything.
It may also explain why by 2017 the party’s fundraising efforts had shifted focus, from trying to get people to donate to the SNP itself to using causes like a second indyref or a non-existent guidebook to independence.
There has in fact never been any detectable trace of the ref.scot money in the SNP accounts since 2017. At the close of that year, despite having received £482,000 for the supposed campaign, the party had just £7,906 in the bank.
At the end of 2018 – the first year since 2014 that there hadn’t been an election or a referendum to fight, and in which the SNP therefore got to trouser close to £3.5m in membership fees and UK government funding without any major outlays – that amount had increased to £411,042.
But a year later, after another snap election, it was back down to £96,854 despite a new fundraiser ostensibly intended to produce an independence guidebook – though sometimes the description was downgraded to a “leaflet” – for every household in Scotland raising around £100,000.
Nearly two years on from the launch of the new appeal there’s still been no sign of the guide, despite the website once again having made very clear that all the money would be used for that particular purpose rather than just general SNP funding.
The fundraiser is still accepting donations, but since last year there’s no longer been any reference on its website to the guidebook, and the SNP has never mentioned “An Independent Scotland: Household Guide” again.
Implausibly, the party continues to insist that between the 2017 and 2019 fundraisers it still has their combined total of almost £600,000 available to spend at a moment’s notice, with then-treasurer Colin Beattie infamously claiming in 2020 that the money was “woven through” the accounts in some unexplained way, although being woven through something else is the literal exact opposite of a thing being “ringfenced”.
It dismisses any notion that it’s been spent as an “utterly baseless conspiracy theory”.
But it refuses to tell anyone where the money can be found, and bizarrely in the same breath tells us that it’s actually spent some of it already on unspecified “preparations” and on the creation of an “independence unit” (or “Marco Biagi” as the unit normally prefers to be called), and that it intends to have blown the lot by the end of 2021, even though there are no credible plans to hold a referendum either this year or next year.
It would, of course, be quite seriously illegal for a political party to be hiding half a million pounds off the books somewhere in a secret slush fund. And while the SNP has almost 300 “accounting units” (AUs) registered with the Electoral Commission, mainly local branches, none has ever filed accounts which could explain them being used to hold the ref.scot money.
(Any AU receiving over £25,000 in a year has to file separate accounts.)
By a very big distance the largest SNP AU outside the central party is the Westminster Group of MPs – no other SNP AU has ever declared income in six figures.
In 2017 the Westminster Group declared £421,157 in “miscellaneous” income, which is actually the levy taken by the party from MPs’ salaries – currently around £11,000 a year – and known as the “pooled budgets income” (PBI).
(That’s why the 2017 PBI figure is significantly lower than the 2016 one, after the party lost 40% of its MPs halfway through the year.)
The PBI and Short money are the WM Group’s only sources of funds.
So the money can ONLY have passed into (and out of) the central-party accounts, because there’s nowhere else it could lawfully be.
At the end of the day, then, by far the most plausible explanation – indeed the only one – for the Mystery Of The Missing Money seems to in fact be a remarkably and surprisingly straightforward one: the ref.scot funds were used to pay off a £500,000 loan to either Chris or Colin Weir in late 2017 and have never been seen again.
On that basis, everything in the accounts adds up and makes sense. On any other basis, it simply doesn’t.
(When three members of the party’s own Finance Committee tried to carry out their legal duties this year by examining the books to verify the fact, they were refused sight of them by party CEO Peter Murrell and resigned to protect themselves from liability.)
And unfortunately for the SNP, if that’s true then it’s a clear case of common-law fraud. Nobody was asked for donations to pay off the SNP’s debts or for any other party purposes, they were asked to provide money that would be kept in reserve for a future referendum.
Belatedly the party has tried to cover its tracks, by breaking its own promises and (notionally) spending the money before there’s another referendum, which is the exact same thing it’s angrily insisting it hasn’t done before now. (In reality, it’s rebadging normal staff wages as the ref.scot money to try to make it vanish retrospectively.)
But it’s far too late for that. A crime has been committed, and the only way that Peter Murrell and Nicola Sturgeon could get out of it now would be if the person in charge of criminal prosecutions in Scotland was also a minister in her government who was directly answerable to her and already had a worrying track record of deeply improper behaviour, or something mad like that.
And readers, what sort of a twisted, crooked joke of a country would that be?