Scottish Tories handed nearly £100k by billionaire family behind tax haven firm 5

Scottish Tories handed nearly £100k by billionaire family behind tax haven firm

The Scottish Conservatives have been given £96,000 by members of an influential billionaire family behind a company ultimately owned in an offshore tax haven.

Jardine Matheson is a firm based in Hong Kong but incorporated in the tax haven of Bermuda. Its owners, the Keswick family, have helped to bankroll the Tory party, an anti-EU group and the pro-union Better Together campaign to the tune of nearly £2m.

The company dates back to the 1800s and its two original founders include a Dumfriesshire ancestor accused of sparking the Opium Wars, which led Hong Kong to become a British colony.

Now the family owns estates spanning thousands of hectares in south west Scotland. The vast majority (£82,000) of its Scottish donations went to the Dumfries and Galloway Tories and local politician, David Mundell (£18,000).

One family member, Henry Keswick, was reportedly part of an elite club of Tory party donors who attended secret ‘leader’s group’ meetings with the prime minister and other senior figures under Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Transparency pressure groups warned that “donors’ money buys influence” and called for annual limits and stronger checks on donations “to avoid the impression of democracy for sale”.

There is no suggestion that the Keswicks have avoided tax in Scotland or the UK, and their donations were legal. 

But a Scottish Labour MSP claimed the “landed gentry” were trying to “buy the election for their chums”, and accused the Tories of having a “total lack of principles” by accepting their money.

The Keswicks have previously donated directly to former prime minister Johnson, and gave nearly £300,000 to his party ahead of the 2019 election.

The company has also attracted investors from prominent Scottish Tories.

Alister Jack, the former Dumfries and Galloway MP and secretary of state for Scotland under both Johnson and Rishi Sunak, is a former investor in Jardine Matheson. In 2017, The Herald highlighted that the firm, of which Jack held at least £70,000 of shares in, is incorporated in Bermuda, prompting criticism then from the SNP.

The Scottish Tories said at the time that Jack would not dispose of the shares, stressing it was legal to be “involved in companies which happen to be registered in Bermuda”. But a few months later, Jack did sell the shares, according to his register of interests.

Scottish Tories handed nearly £100k by billionaire family behind tax haven firm 6

The Keswick family and their donations

Jardine Matheson was founded in Hong Kong in 1832 by William Jardine, from Dumfriesshire, and James Matheson, from Sutherland, to trade tea and opium. The pair were accused by historian, Saul David, of sparking the Opium Wars, which led Hong Kong to become a British colony. Matheson also became one of Britain’s richest landowners, and reportedly owned the Isle of Lewis.

Current owners the Keswicks descend from a sister of Jardine and are reportedly worth £4.5bn. Their firm has over 425,000 employees and counted former prime minister, David Cameron, among its employees.

Henry Keswick, former owner of the conservative publication, The Spectator, was chairman of Jardine Matheson from 1972 to 2018. He owns the 7,000 hectare (ha) Hunthill shooting estate in the Angus Glens via a trust, and the 2,382ha Lincluden and Lochenkit Estate in Dumfriesshire via his Bermuda firm, according to data compiled by Who Owns Scotland.

Tories
Hunthill Lodge cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anne Burgess – geograph.org.uk/p/2054029

His father reportedly owned Glenkiln estate in the same region. Keswick was a signatory to a 2023 letter to Scotland’s environment minister, Gillian Martin, which warned of the implications of a new wildlife law aimed at protecting birds of prey and regulating the grouse shooting industry, and suggested amendments.

In 2019, Open Democracy revealed that Keswick attended at least eight meetings of the leader’s group – donors who had given the Tory party at least £50,000 a year. Its meetings reportedly involved private receptions with the prime minister and other senior Tories.

It shows a total lack of principles from the Tory candidates that they are happy to see their campaign bank accounts stuffed with cash in this way and it shows just who their priority will be if elected.

Colin Smyth MSP, Scottish Labour

Henry’s wife, Tessa, who died in 2022, gave £40,000 to the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, and £7,000 to the Stirling and Clackmannanshire Tories in 2021.

She was director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank founded by the Margaret Thatcher, and political adviser to John Major’s chancellor, Ken Clarke. Tessa was also director of Daily Mail and General Trust, which owns the Daily Mail newspaper titles.

Henry’s brother, Simon, gave £2,000 to the Dumfries and Galloway Tories in 2010, and £100,000 to the wider party ahead of the 2019 election. Henry’s nephew, Ben, an executive director of Jardine Matheson, owns the 566ha Grove Estate in Dumfriesshire.

John Chippendale ‘Chips’ Keswick, Henry’s brother, died earlier this year. His counted King Charles and Queen Camilla amongst his close friends and both attended his funeral in April.

Chips is listed as the owner of the 518ha Muill and Marglolly Estate in Dumfriesshire, and the 837ha Auchendolly Estate in Galloway. He gave £26,500 to the Dumfries and Galloway Tories between 2004 and 2022, while his wife, Sarah, donated £7,000.

Chips also gave £5,000 to the Aberdeenshire Tories and £23,000 to the Better Together campaign, while his nephew, Edward Percy Weatherall, gave £50,000 to the anti-independence group.

Weatherall, who owns the 2,050-hectare Troloss and Overfingland estate in Dumfriesshire, is a non-executive director of Jardine Matheson and a deputy lieutenant of Dumfries alongside Alister Jack’s wife.

The 1,164-hectare Weatherall Scott Trust Estate in Kirkcudbrightshire is owned by trustees on behalf of a late member of the Keswick and Weatherall family. Another family member, John Keswick Jencks, owns the 304-hectare Portrack Estate in Dumfriesshire.

Scottish Tories handed nearly £100k by billionaire family behind tax haven firm 7
Portrack House on the Dumfriesshire estate. Image thanks to Kit Carruthers. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

Donations used to ‘buy election’

South Scotland Labour MSP, Colin Smyth, said: “These families have been bankrolling the Tories for years and treat Dumfries and Galloway as their ancestral fiefdom.”

He branded the Keswicks as the “landed gentry” and accused them of attempting to “buy the election for their chums”.

“It shows a total lack of principles from the Tory candidates that they are happy to see their campaign bank accounts stuffed with cash in this way and it shows just who their priority will be if elected,” said Smyth.

“At a time so many local families are struggling because of a Tory imposed cost of living crisis and are worried that their loved ones can’t get treatment because of an underfunded NHS, it will stick in the throats of local people that that their Tory candidates are taking bundles of cash from the owners of businesses registered in offshore tax havens.”

He claimed it was becoming clear that “this old boys network” was losing its hold on power, and that people across Scotland were “crying out for change”.

It is time to put a stop to the rising tide of big money washing into our politics.

Tom Brake, Unlock Democracy

Tom Brake, a former Liberal Democrat MP and director of Unlock Democracy, said: “It is time to put a stop to the rising tide of big money washing into our politics.

“Donors’ money buys influence and the more they give, the more they have. An annual limit on donations of £5,000 would mean no one’s voice carried more weight than anyone else’s with decision makers.”

Juliet Swann from Transparency International UK added: “Accepting significant contributions from private interests does nothing to improve the public trust in politics. We know the public think big political donors give generously with strings attached.

“Caps on individual donations and better due diligence on those who make them are an essential reform to avoid the impression of democracy for sale.”

The Ferret contacted the Keswick family via Jardine Matheson, but did not receive a response. The Scottish Conservatives did not respond to requests to comment.

This Ferret story was also published in the Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

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Main image: Chris Watt

1 comment
  1. Jeez this is uninformed nonsensical gossip. Jardine Matheson do virtually all their business in Asia, principally China. David Mundell, nice chap that he is, nevertheless has little influence over CCP business policy. JM pays tax at about 26%, nearly all in Asia. That’s almost a billion dollars. If they are trying to shelter tax, they are doing a lousy job. In any case, where a company is registered has little or no effect on tax paid which is largely down to where you operate.
    Further, the Keswicks will pay tax on dividends received based on their tax residency. I don’t know where that is – but nor do you it seems because you have done zero research.
    I don’t see how having an allegedly naughty distant ancestor somehow prevents you being active politically 200 years later. God help all of us if we’re subject to that purity test.
    So the article boils down to ‘rich person contributes to democratic process transparently.’ Bring me the fainting couch and smelling salts!

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