In the past week both US President Barack Obama and former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have expressed that they hope that Scotland votes No in September’s independence referendum. Until now the US has stayed firmly out of the debate, with the official State department line being that it was a matter for the people of Scotland to decide, but with the campaigns drawing nearer to an end and the polls narrowing, this US intervention may be a sign of the increasing worry amongst the No campaign, British government and indeed governments across the world that Scotland could become independent.
First, Obama said in a joint press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron that he believed that the UK should remain a “strong, robust, united and effective partner”, hinting clearly his support for a No vote. It later transpired that the question and answer were pre-planned by 10 Downing Street rather than a true, personal, immediate reaction to the issue. Obama’s comments certainly attracted a lot of attention, as de facto leader of the free world, but weren’t as strong as a complete dismissal of independence – as he repeated the idea that it decision was “up to the people of Scotland“. Alex Salmond countered Obama’s opinions by using his famous campaign slogan, “Yes We Can”, to say that Scotland could succeed if it becomes independent.
Hillary Clinton today said that a Yes vote in the referendum would be a “loss for both sides”, although as with Obama recognised that she doesn’t have a vote. Her words certainly carry weight, as she was considered a very successful Secretary of State and could well run for the Presidency in 2016, but as with Obama’s they are only outsider voices that will likely have little impact on the overall stance of the campaigns.
Whether the words of Obama and Clinton will resonate with Scottish voters is unclear. Both enjoy support in opinion polls here for their work, but when it comes to being directly engaged by them could turn out to be very different. We’ve already seen the Yes campaign receive a boost in the polls after one of their key arguments, that Scotland would keep on using the pound as its currency post-independence, was rebuffed officially by Chancellor George Osborne. Scottish people do not take kindly to being told what they can’t do. The American voices in the referendum aren’t going to be as important as those of the British government, but could help drive some people towards a Yes vote to assert their “independence from these politicians”, as Professor Scott Lucas put it.
It’s clear that governments around the world are concerned with the UK’s potential separation, but the reasons for that don’t necessarily affect Scotland. The UK is one of the major players in the EU, UN and world politics in general and there is a fear that Scotland choosing independence will undermine the UK’s already weakening position in the international order. Obama said himself that the UK is one of the closest allies that “we [America] will ever have”. What’s interesting though is that it’s not the strength of the ties between the states that is important here, but the strength of the states with which they have ties. It’s hard to imagine that the rUK would weaken ties with America in the event of Scotland becoming independent, but they certainly might matter less in a world where new powers are emerging from the developing world. This is why the comments from Obama and Clinton, and likely from other world leaders, are beginning to emerge.
Whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country is the crux of the debate. World leaders and outsider voices offer an interesting opinion on it, but not one that necessarily matters. Their interest is in stability, which is undoubtedly something that a No vote offers more so than a Yes vote. Scotland’s independence would create issues and dilemmas the world over regarding diplomatic and trade relations with Scotland and the UK, between the UK and EU (with more chance of the UK leaving the organisation without Scotland, according to polls) and for the status of separatist movements across the globe. Scottish independence is a can of worms that many in the international sphere would rather was not opened.
But the only people that matter in the independence debate are the people of Scotland. The effects of the referendum’s outcome will only be fully felt by those living in Scotland, although there will definitely be a worldwide impact. In this vote, Scots should be as selfish as possible. The only concern for Scots in the referendum should be whether they and their country will be better off with independence or remaining with the union. If it is the “settle will” of the Scottish people to become independent, the rest of the UK and the rest of the world will have to deal with it – in one way or another.
The last week’s American intervention in the independence debate will not be the last from foreign states before Scots go to the polls in less than 100 days’ time. But in a referendum where purely Scottish interests are at play, as much as they try it’s unlikely to change the attitude of voters enough to influence the outcome.