Scotland’s ruling SNP woos tycoon who shunned Nicola Sturgeon

LONDON — The Scottish government asked a controversial business chief who shunned Nicola Sturgeon to help arrange a glitzy industry dinner at a five-star hotel.

Brian Souter, a socially conservative entrepreneur who has challenged LGBTQ+ equalities law in Scotland, broke away from the Scottish National Party during Sturgeon’s time at the top of the country’s ruling party.

But documents released to POLITICO under freedom of information law show Souter has been extensively courted by aides to Sturgeon’s successor Humza Yousaf, who enlisted Souter to help organize the dinner meant to repair ties between government and business.

The newly disclosed emails show the Scottish first minister’s senior advisers liaised with Souter when arranging the gathering in Edinburgh last summer. Souter agreed to help “nudge” other business figures to attend.

It’s the latest twist in a storied history for the SNP and Souter.

Formerly the party’s largest donor, Souter stopped donating altogether when Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond at the helm of the party in 2014.

He never gave a public reason for his lack of financial support for the SNP under Sturgeon — but the devout social conservative was at odds with many of the socially liberal policies pursued by Sturgeon while she was leader.

Souter, who runs bus company Stagecoach and is one of Scotland’s richest men, led the unsuccessful campaign more than two decades ago to keep a law in place which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and local authorities. He also publicly opposed efforts to introduce same-sex marriage.

The exchanges suggest warming relations between Yousaf’s office and Souter, but it could raise eyebrows in some parts of the SNP tribe.

During the fractious leadership contest to replace Sturgeon last year, Yousaf talked up his socially liberal record to contrast himself with rival Kate Forbes, who strongly signaled her social conservatism during the contest.

‘Brian is happy’

The email chain, dated to June and July 2023, came after Yousaf met Souter at Scotland’s annual National Prayer Breakfast, a religious event the businessman organizes in June.

It shows that Yousaf’s chief of staff Colin McAllister engaged in a lengthy back and forth with an aide to Souter on the subject of a possible dinner last summer amid efforts to reset frayed relations with the business sector.

Formerly the party’s largest donor, Souter stopped donating altogether when Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond at the helm of the party in 2014 | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In the exchanges, McAllister suggested a list of potential invitees for the dinner to an aide from Souter’s Souter Investments Ltd company, who replied that “Brian is happy with the proposed list below.”

The senior Yousaf aide then said Souter “offered to reach out to some people” regarding the dinner.

“I will leave it to you guys to judge who that might be but we would be very grateful if he could nudge people as he feels appropriate,” McAllister added.

“Brian is fine with reaching out to people once we have the date in the diary,” the businessman’s aide replied.

Star-studded

The event — billed by Yousaf’s team as a “Business Leaders Dinner” — eventually went ahead on July 27 last summer, at the luxury Prestonfield House. Yousaf, his Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray, Souter, the former media proprietor Ellis Watson and the senior special adviser are all listed as attending alongside nine other figures whose names were redacted.

The email exchanges show that Souter’s aide also offered to try to book the luxury hotel on the Scottish government’s behalf, which was politely declined by McAllister.

Under his leadership, Yousaf has sought to reach out to Scottish firms, some of whom fell out of love with the party under Sturgeon. The SNP — in government in Scotland for almost 17 years — is struggling in the polls and battling a police investigation into its finances.

According to Scottish government minutes circulated after the dinner, Yousaf told those present that “engagement with business has already highlighted the need to involve business more effectively in policy.” The business leaders were invited to “raise issues with FM and his wider ministerial team in the future.”

Pressed on the dinner, a Scottish government spokesperson said “ministers routinely engage with a wide range of business leaders as a normal part of government.”

They said Yousaf “has been clear since taking office that resetting the relationship between government and business is a priority.”

Souter was also approached for comment.

A firm believer in Scottish independence, Souter was close to the SNP under Salmond and handed the party more than £2.5 million in donations between 2007 and the independence referendum in 2014.

He hasn’t given a penny since, according to public records. It’s a common theme among Scotland’s business elite, as Sturgeon’s SNP began to rely less on big-ticket donations and instead on monthly fees paid by its then-swelling card-carrying membership.

But a sharp decline in membership numbers and an absence of many — and sometimes any — donations in recent years has seen the party run into financial difficulties.