UK Government lobbied US to back Scottish No campaign


By Reporter

The extent of UK Government attempts to pressure the United States to intervene on the side of the No campaign in last year’s Scottish referendum has been revealed by a Sunday newspaper today.

The Scottish Sunday Express – a No supporting title – obtained what it describes as “a cache” of US State Department documents, after three years of inquiries using US freedom of information legislation.

The files confirm that the US has tracked the independence debate ever since the SNP first formed a government at Holyrood in 2007.

They reveal extensive UK Government lobbying, led by the Scotland Office, as Whitehall became increasingly desperate to persuade foreign governments to condemn Scottish independence. The US was the number one target for the campaign.

Stiglitz: Nobel Prize winner and Scottish Government adviser

The files also reveal that US officials monitored US citizens who spoke in favour of independence. These included Professor David Scheffer, who gave a pro Yes speech in Glasgow,  and Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner who advised the Scottish Government on economic matters.

Today, the role of the Scotland Office particularly was condemned by the SNP.

The party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Angus Robertson MP, said: “It is shameful that Westminster’s Scotland Office was desperately briefing The White House against Scottish independence during the referendum campaign.

“It is also somewhat unsettling that the UK government were briefing The White House about US citizens like Joseph Stiglitz and others who were involved in Scotland’s biggest ever democratic exercise.”

US State Department papers describe former First Minister Alex Salmond as “a breath of fresh air” but note his “anti-war” policies. New FM Nicola Sturgeon is described as a “forceful politician”.

The department’s central foreign policy division traced 60 documents as a result of the Sunday Express inquiries, but only 22 have been released in full. A further 19 had some sections redacted, with 14 “kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy”, and another five still under review.

The files kept secret most likely relate to the fate of Trident and the SNP debate over an independent Scotland’s NATO membership – both key issues to what the US perceives as its own national interest.

One briefing dated February 15 2013 reveals details of a meeting between Marisa Plowden, head of internal politics at the US Embassy in London, and an anonymous official of the Scotland Office who wanted to discuss a Whitehall report on the implications of independence.

Chris Flatt, Scotland Office
Chris Flatt, Scotland Office high flier

It is likely that the Scotland Office official will have been Chris Flatt (right), who served as Deputy Director, Constitution and International Affairs, at the department from 2010 until the referendum, or members of his team. Flatt, a rising star in the civil service with eight years’ previous service in Northern Ireland, has since become Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, Alistair Carmichael.

The Secretary of State in February 2013 was Michael Moore MP, who was replaced by fellow Liberal Democrat Carmichael in October that year as the referendum campaign stepped up and it was felt that the office required a more aggressive political lead.

At the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee in Holyrood last March, Mr Flatt obligingly told MSPs that he had briefed “dozens” of embassy and other officials of foreign governments.

Alistair Carmichael MP
Alistair Carmichael MP: discomfiture

As this video shows, this was in spite of Carmichael’s clear discomfiture. A similar clip shows that the Secretary of State attempting to silence his official, before bringing the evidence session to a quick end.

According to the Express, the US briefing states: “Scotland Office contacts stressed that this policy paper, more than some others they will release, has an international dimension.

“They suggested the US could be asked by the press if we would recognise the rest of the UK as a legal successor state. (Political officers) recommend we not alter our talking point that the referendum is a domestic political issue.

“If pressed we could say the question of recognition is a hypothetical one, and we don’t engage on hypothetical questions.”

Salmond: "breath of fresh air"
Salmond: “breath of fresh air”

Whatever their political views, US officials appear to have been greatly impressed by the personal abilities of Salmond and Sturgeon. Salmond was described in 2008 as “getting top marks for leadership, intelligence, likeability, guile and the breath of fresh air he is said to be injecting into the government”.

Another report, stemming from a speech to the European Parliament last February, described Sturgeon as “a forceful politician and her presentation impressed even opponents of Scottish independence in the audience”.

US officials clearly kept a close eye on Scottish matters mainly where issues of defence or foreign affairs wre concerned. Despite their reluctance to get involved, President Obama was persuaded eventually to indicate his government’s desire that the UK remain together, although his comments were couched in terms of the final decision being for the Scottish people.

The State Department anticipated that several EU states, led by Spain, may be expected to put obstacles in the way of an independent Scotland, because of concerns about other issues of autonomy on the Continent, and especially Catalonia.