Michael Gray is a 21-year-old politics student at Glasgow University. On 7 April, an article he wrote appeared on National Collective, a Scottish independence website. The piece used sources already available online to paint an unalluring portrait of the business dealings of the Vitol Group, an energy trading giant. That day, Better Together (the No campaign) had announced that it had received more than £1.1 million in donations, including £500,000 from Ian Taylor, Vitol’s CEO (and a major donor to the Conservative party).
Two days after Gray’s article appeared, National Collective received an email from Collyer Bristow solicitors, representing Vitol and Taylor, saying that the piece contained ‘serious errors and falsehoods’ and was grossly defamatory of both Vitol and Taylor. Shortly afterwards National Collective, which had not given Taylor or Vitol any right of reply, went offline: a page of static and ‘Music for a Forgotten Future’ by Mogwai greeted visitors to the site.
A week later, National Collective held a press conference in Glasgow to announce that an amended version of the piece, including Taylor and Vitol’s responses to the accusations, was to be republished on the site, along with a petition calling on Better Together to return Taylor’s donation. ‘Today is about a lot more than politics,’ Gray told half a dozen members of the Scottish press and a cadre of supporters in the main hall of the Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow. ‘This is about our freedom to write without intimidation from the powerful and the rich.’
National Collective’s solicitor, Aamar Anwar, is representing them pro bono. ‘If this matter goes to court, clearly they will require funding,’ he said when someone asked how a website run by volunteers could compete with Taylor’s legal firepower. National Collective’s director, Ross Colquhoun, a graphic designer in Edinburgh, told me he was worried about the prospect of further solicitors’ letters. ‘But we’re actually in a good position, because we are all skint.’
Finances are likely to play an important part in next year’s independence referendum. Yes Scotland has received the bulk of its funding to date from Chris and Colin Weir, SNP supporters who won £161 million in the Euromillions lottery in 2011 and have so far given £1 million to the campaign. But the SNP, with European, Westminster and Holyrood elections to fight in 2014, 2015 and 2016, has limited funds to pour into a protracted independence campaign. The No campaign has no such concerns – one reason the SNP would like donations to be allowed only from people with a franchise in next year’s referendum (the Electoral Commission's guidelines permit anyone resident in the UK to give money).
A wealthy Tory donor applying legal muscle to push around students and impecunious graphic designers doesn’t look good politically. But it might still suit a Better Together campaign that has, so far, made a very successful play of dragging the independence debate away from grand visions and into the minutiae that switch voters off in droves. It ties in with their other tactic of eliding SNP policy with what an independent Scotland may or may not do.
National Collective was a space for breezy, idealistic imaginings of a post-Westminster Scotland; now its writers find themselves parsing campaign funding legislation and Taylor’s numerous courtroom battles. Viewed from within, this all looks like grist to the independence mill; but a public distrustful of politicians of every hue is less likely to be convinced. The No campaign wants to bore Scottish voters into submission, or into not voting at all. So far, it’s a strategy that’s paying dividends.