We don’t exactly have high expectations when it comes to the Daily Mail.
But a piece in today’s edition is despicable even for them.
The Lucky Dip lottery ticket that could wreck the Union
It was not exactly typical of the begging letters Colin and Chris Weir received when they scooped their £161 million lottery jackpot. This one did not come straight out with it and plead for a leg-up. Nor did it tell a hard luck tale – not even hint that the sender was eyeing their fortune covetously.
But Mr Weir would have guessed what was on Alex Salmond’s mind when he wrote offering his congratulations on his “great good fortune” in the EuroMillions draw in July 2011.
“It is wonderful to have this opportunity to make contact again,” purred the First Minister in his letter. “And in such happy circumstances.”
It helped, of course, that Mr Salmond and the former TV cameraman had crossed paths many moons ago, back when the politician was the SNP’s publicity vice-convener and the two used to work on party political broadcasts together. That allowed Mr Salmond to treat Mr Weir as if they were old mates.
Within a few weeks, the Weirs, of Largs, Ayrshire, arrived for “talks” in Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence.
Four days later, on September 13, they donated their first half million each to the SNP for its referendum campaign.
Three years on, the Weirs are, by a mile, the two biggest financial contributors to the campaign for an independent Scotland. Indeed, they are easily the biggest political donors in Britain.
To date, they are reckoned to have donated £3 million to the Nationalist cause – and they are free to contribute more before the end of May, when a spending limit of £1.5 million kicks in for both the Yes and No campaigns.
It may seem scarcely credible – and downright alarming – that something as random as a lottery win could change the course of a nation’s history. It is, after all, in the faint hope of personal rather than political gain that millions of players across Europe buy tickets.
Yet seven numbers have turned the Weirs into one of Scotland’s most powerful couples. In a heartbeat, the Lucky Dip card from their local RS McColl newsagent changed everything. From a podgy, rather poorly couple shuffling quietly into their retirement years, they were transformed into towering financial titans, willing to plough enormous sums of money into advancing their favoured political agenda.
Incredibly, it is the Better Together campaign – with the combined wealth of the Tory Party, Labour and the Lib Dems – that now appears the more financially embarrassed. And it is the SNP – once a tiny, practically irrelevant sideshow in the great scheme of British politics – which is flush.
And, staggeringly, it is all because the numbers 17, 19, 38, 42 and 45 and Lucky Stars 9 and 10 came up.
To be sure, no one could accuse the couple of becoming politicised purely as a result of their new-found wealth. Both were committed Nationalists long before their EuroMillions jackpot arrived.
Back in 1987, the year Mr Salmond first became an MP, Mr Weir even stood as an SNP candidate in the General Election, coming fourth in the Ayr constituency with 6.68 per cent of the vote.
But the couple’s extraordinarily deep pockets and their determination to channel money into a political cause has left many feeling distinctly queasy.
It is hardly surprising that the queasiest are Unionists. Better Together’s biggest donor, after all, is Ian Taylor, chief executive of oil trader Vitol, whose contribution stands at £634,770.
Tory MSP Alex Johnstone says of the Weirs’ benevolence towards the SNP:
“The easiest way to describe it is it simply leaves me a bit uneasy.
The thing that has always concerned me about the Weirs is the process behind these donations. Is it entirely their idea?
Is it entirely because they are deeply committed to the political principle – or were they approached for donations?
Were they courted for donations, as many large donors often are? The bottom line is, were they targeted?”
There is a certain irony in any mainstream party politician appearing to cast aspersions on donors to another party – and Mr Johnstone accepts this.
“When it comes to the funding of political parties, we’re all in it to some extent”, he says. But in the Weirs’ case, he believes the circumstances are “absolutely unique”.
“It’s not entirely how they came by their money, but the fact that they came into money and were immediately targeted.
If it was someone who was managing large amounts of money on a daily basis who made the decision, based on long-term commitments and experience, to donate to a political cause, that would be one thing. It’s the fact that a couple came into a very large amount of money overnight and were, it appears, very quickly targeted by a political organisation.”
Asked to comment on claims the party targeted the Weirs, an SNP spokesman says only: “Colin and Chris Weir are lifelong SNP supporters and we’re grateful to have their backing.”
Notwithstanding the enormous scale of their donations, the Weirs also choose to remain silent on such uncomfortable questions. Since their win, they have never made any public pronouncements on politics.
A spokesman for the PR firm they engage to handle media inquiries about the benevolent fund they have set up, The Weir Charitable Trust, says the Weirs “don’t do” interviews.
It was during their period of adjustment, before the dust had truly settled on the massive windfall that rocketed them into the Rich List, that the Weirs last spoke publicly about their intentions.
Mrs Weir said: “I believe that things do happen for a reason – and we also believe that with great wealth comes great responsibilities.”
By this time they had already begun to flex their financial muscle, donating around £100,000 to help save the Waverley paddle steamer, a common sight in the waters off Largs and under threat due to increased running costs.
Many, many more philanthropic acts would follow – hand-outs which would accord the Weirs near saintly status in their home town.
But the political dimension to their generosity was much more divisive.
Suddenly, the First Minister and his party were courting the pair. The couple’s views on independence swiftly became a matter of national importance. And all that pivoted on one thing – their money.
It was in the mid-1980s that Mr Salmond and Mr Weir first worked together on party political broadcasts. At the time, he was a cameraman at STV, a job he gave up in the 1990s to care for his second wife Chris, a psychiatric nurse who had been forced to stop working due to neurological problems.
When she eventually returned to work in the NHS, he was increasingly incapacitated by rheumatoid arthritis. In the three years before their win in 2011, neither Mr nor Mrs Weir worked – and, aged 64 and 55 respectively, it was doubtful whether either of them would again.
But as Mr Weir put it several weeks after their lottery numbers came up: “We’ve come out of retirement into full-time jobs.”
Certainly, there is no question that along with their £161 million came a raft of considerations which do not cross the radar of the less well-off.
Mrs Weir explained in 2011: “It takes a long time to set up a charitable foundation. We have to do it slowly because, in order to help charities and local organisations, we have to look at the tax implications for them. If we throw money at them just now, they could be landed with a tax bill.”
Of course, there were also family and friends to provide for. During year one, the couple gave their daughter Carly and son Jamie money for new properties; while Mrs Weir, the second of six children, is understood to have bought new homes for each of her siblings.
The modern, box-shaped house the new multimillionaires were living in was given as a gift to a neighbour, a teenage mother; while the Weirs bought several new homes for friends on a freshly built development in Largs.
They found time to treat themselves too, snapping up the detached, four-bedroom Knock House, which sits on 23 acres of ground on the outskirts of Largs, for £850,000.
Two things quickly became very clear about the Weirs’ lottery win. First, they absolutely would let the money change their lives. Second, they would strive to ensure it changed the lives of others too.
But, of course, in this endeavour their efforts extend not just to charitable causes but also a political one that could change the lives of Scotland’s entire population, whether they like it or not.
The frightening thing is that these massive political donations are actually small beer to them.
In that first year of superwealth, their £1 million donation to the SNP was the biggest single outlay of an estimated £5 million spend. Yet, with interest generated from their win thought to amount to £5.6million a year, their total expenditure would not have dented their capital sum at all.
It would be perfectly feasible for the Weirs to bankroll the SNP for years to come simply from the income from interest payments.
Last year brought a £1 million donation from the couple to Yes Scotland and this year a further seven-figure sum is believed to have been contributed.
A Yes Scotland spokesman said last year: “Chris and Colin’s lifelong commitment to independence is well known. Their donations to this cause are in line with their financial means and reflect their desire to see a level playing field for this important issue to be debated fully and fairly.”
This week, Yes Scotland refused to reveal how much money the Weirs had donated, insisting an announcement would be made at a time of its own choosing.
The campaign’s talk of a level playing field is a moot point. The public does not know how level the playing field is because Yes Scotland has not updated its public records in more than a year.
But Better Together chairman Alistair Darling has raised fears of an uneven contest, claiming: “We are going to get outspent on this.”
The bitterness between the two sides over money is becoming palpable. And the Weirs – who will not utter a word publicly on the issue – are right in the middle of it.
Three years on from the day which turned their lives upside down, it is fair to say the two have become more comfortable with spending money. All around Largs, and beyond, beneficiaries sing their praises.
Thanks to the £70,000 the Weirs donated, Routenburn Golf Club in Largs was able to buy its clubhouse.
he local football team was given cash for a new pitch; while a series of upgrades was carried out in the town’s care home, Haylie House, courtesy of the Weirs.
Sweet shop worker Lee Craigmile received sponsorship to the tune of £50,000 to take a four-year course at Florence Academy of Art. Teenage tennis hopeful Ross Wilson was given £50,000 to study at the Barcelona academy where Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal both cut their teeth.
Thanks to the Weir Charitable Trust, the list of deserving causes grows well beyond their own corner of Scotland.
Clearly, they have come to enjoy treating themselves too. Having decided they could do better than Knock House, their latest major acquisition is a magnificent, £3.5 million house, near Troon, bought after a ten-minute viewing. It is believed to be the fifth biggest house sale ever in Scotland.
The residence, built in 1909 for a wealthy tea planter, was purchased from chef and hotelier Bill Costley who said he almost “walked out of the property with four pairs of underpants” after the Weirs bought the house and practically everything in it almost on the spot.
Mr Costley said: “We did take a few things, though, that were personal to us. They were in about ten minutes and bought it and all the contents. I say it myself, but it is a very special house in a unique location.”
It certainly is. Highlights include a 36,000-piece chandelier, a billiard room and a vast bathroom with his and hers wash-hand basins and a bath that would have made Cleopatra blush.
At public appearances, the former cameraman is dapper in his well-cut suits, while the ex-nurse looks considerably healthier after an apparently successful diet.
The changes those seven numbers have brought to the lives of the Weirs and others are manifest. But the most far-reaching consequence will not be clear until after the referendum. Those who care about the future of Britain can only hope the Weirs’ money does not pay for its destruction.
We’d like to hope that experienced readers are wise by now to the tricks the Mail is employing in the piece. There are the token figleaves of balance, pointing out the Weirs’ good charitable works and making the odd vaguely pleasantish comment about well-cut suits, in order to make the rest of of the article seem less vicious.
But those 2100 words aren’t an innocent character portrait. They’re a sinister attempt at intimidation, not only of Chris and Colin Weir but the entire independence movement, and indeed the people of Scotland.
The word which most accurately describes the two-page spread is “othering”. The objective is to make the Yes campaign seem alien and creepy and suspicious, and in doing so cause Scots to shy away from it. The use of words like “queasy” and “targeted” are intended to reinforce that impression.
Alex Johnstone, who in a better world would be tarred and feathered and shunned by all decent human beings for taking part in such a despicable piece of smearing, apparently isn’t the least bit “uneasy” about taking hundreds of thousands of pounds from Ian Taylor – a man with links to genocide, war crimes and murderous dictators – yet apparently he finds himself unsettled by the idea of lifelong SNP members donating money to the cause of independence.
(Of course, this slur is cloaked in the language of concern, insulting the Weirs by suggesting they’ve been duped by the “covetous”, “purring” Alex Salmond into contributing a tiny part of their fortune to a cause they’ve believed in for decades.)
Alistair Darling, a man who swindled UK taxpayers out of thousands of pounds by “flipping” his many homes to maximise his expenses claims and who pockets an MP’s full-time salary despite rarely appearing in Parliament (he’s spoken only once in 2014) and dividing most of his effort between leading “Better Together” and jetting around the world enriching himself giving speeches to gullible businessmen, also chips in with a comment implying that the Weirs are creating unfair play in the referendum campaign.
(Despite the No camp having the full weight of Britain’s rich and powerful behind it.)
The article highlights the Weirs’ shunning of the public eye so comprehensively that to have them splashed across two pages of a major national newspaper, naming their friends and family along with numerous details that could let people easily find their home, can only be interpreted as an attempt to frighten them into avoiding any more attention – a goal most easily achieved, of course, by not making any more large donations to the independence campaign.
Throughout the piece hyperbolic words – “incredibly”, “staggeringly”, “extraordinarily” – are used to emphasise that something is not normal. Pejorative terms like “divisive”, “alarming”, “frightening”, “uncomfortable” and “destruction” are also thrown around liberally to leave the reader in no doubt that this unusual thing is a bad one.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the phrase “that could change the lives of Scotland’s entire population, whether they like it or not”.
In conjunction with the rest of the article, that line is all but an incitement to violence. “These rich people are going to wreck your life against your will just because they fluked into money” is the message to the paper’s readers, barely even cloaked.
(Never mind that it’s basically a description of the entire UK cabinet.)
The article is a tour de force of old-school tabloid monstering, a deliberate and knowing attempt not only to smear and bully Chris and Colin Weir but to “de-normalise” the entire concept of independence and portray it as a disturbing and deviant cult masterminded by callous, grasping, manipulative ogres.
It can only be combated by Yes supporters tackling it head-on. Wearing badges, putting posters in windows and stickers on cars, and speaking out. Because after countless years of independence being the political goal that dare not speak its name, what two years of campaigning have done is make the idea reasonable and respectable – and that, above all else, is the key to winning over the undecided.
Such a prospect, dawning late, terrifies the Daily Mail and all that it represents. Since the start of the year in particular the Unionist media has really turned up the heat on independence-supporting individuals in classic establishment style. We have little doubt that there will be worse to come in the next few months.
Today’s piece is an attempt to drive independence supporters back into the shadows. Only they can determine whether or not it will be a successful one.