Unsurprisingly, President Obama’s comments in regard to the Scottish independence referendum have delighted and electrified those politicians and media hostile to independence, in a replay of David Bowie’s earlier intervention. Scots, however, are less in thrall to celebrity and power than the average British politician and journalist. Most pro-independence commentators, therefore, see Obama’s anodyne comments as not likely to make any more difference to how Scots vote on September 18th than Bowie’s, and if they do have any effect, are as likely to encourage Scots to vote Yes than vote No in a thrawn reaction to being told how to vote in such a manner.
There are some, though, who see something much more sinister. Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador, says: ‘If the United States truly believes it has a “deep interest” in “making sure” that Scotland does not become independent, we can be quite certain that America will be pulling out all the stops to “make sure” that No wins. The language is the language of intelligence service tasking memoranda, which Obama is consciously or unconsciously reproducing. I have personally been involved in a great deal of intelligence service tasking. Intelligence service resources, both personnel and financial, are deployed to a greater or lesser extent to a task according to an assessment of the depth of national interest involved. If Obama has decided the US has a “deep interest” in the result of the Scottish independence campaign, we can expect hidden interference at Ukrainian levels.’
What is more immediately significant to the referendum campaign is the role of the British government and the BBC in the affair. According to Gideon Rachman, the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent at the Financial Times: “Those remarks from Obama on Scotland were not spontaneous. Came after an informal request from No 10.” If this is the case, then the British government would need to ensure the comments were suitably prompted. That such a prompt was provided by a journalist from the BBC gives credence to Rachman’s comments.
It has also been suggested that the official No campaign might also have been involved due to the speed at which Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s Political Editor, could brandish a printed leaflet from Better Together bearing an image of Obama and the single word ‘Nope’ displayed in large type underneath it, just over two hours later on Reporting Scotland. Indeed, Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, had posted the image on his Twitter account only 45 minutes or so after Obama made his comments.
The strong possibility – and it seems to be increasingly accepted, even if it may never be proved conclusively – that the British government and the BBC, and perhaps Better Together, colluded to bring about a desired intervention and make political capital out of it, is more damaging to the No campaign than Obama’s comments are to the Yes campaign.
For their part, the SNP has expressed surprise only at the timing of Obama’s comments. It is not difficult to see why. The UK has been a remarkably obedient ally-cum-lapdog, the few exceptions to the contrary proving the rule. In return, the UK has been able to remain as a major player on the world stage, something of tremendous importance to a highly status-conscious British establishment. The silence of the British media and politicians in regard to Obama’s comments on the UK leaving the EU, which were far more explicit and unequivocal than his Scottish comments, and took place while voting in the Newark by-election was still under way, show how obeisant the ally-cum-lapdog can be.
An independent Scotland is a less attractive prospect for Washington, one almost certain to be led by politicians who defied US displeasure over the compassionate release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and who only adopted a policy of NATO membership as a tactic to win the referendum. Moreover, the dominant narrative of the pro-independence campaign has been hostility to the Anglo-American consensus on neoliberalism, UK/US aggressive interventionism internationally, and Scotland’s role in that consensus, including being a base for WMD. Scotland doesn’t just threaten independence from London, but from Washington as well. The US was happy to be strictly neutral when a No vote seemed almost certain, but now that certainty has been lost, so has that neutrality.
Backed by Chomsky and opposed by the White House, Obama’s intervention represents Scotland’s emergence on the international stage as one of those countries the Scottish left has often campaigned for, but has not hitherto belonged to.