BARACK Obama made a dramatic intervention in the Scottish independence debate yesterday when he said America wanted a “strong, robust” and “united” Britain.
In what was seen as a break with diplomatic protocol, the US president signalled strongly that he favoured a No vote when he said that the UK appeared to have “worked pretty well”.
His comments provoked a storm of protest on Twitter from critics who argued that Mr Obama should “keep his nose out”.
At a press conference following the G7 summit in Brussels, Mr Obama paid tribute to the warm relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. Standing on a podium beside Prime Minister David Cameron, the president was asked about his thoughts on Scottish independence.
“There is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland,” he told reporters. “I would say that the United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner to us. From the outside at least, it looks like things have worked pretty well.
“And we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner. But ultimately these are decisions that are to be made by the folks there.”
Mr Obama’s remarks were an apparent departure from conventional diplomatic protocol, as heads of state are usually reluctant to voice an opinion on the domestic politics of other countries. His endorsement of the Union almost exactly 70 years after Britain and America fought together on D-Day was seen by No campaigners as a powerful reminder of the special relationship enjoyed by the two countries.
His comments were greeted with delight by the Better Together campaign, which interpreted them as the leader of the free world backing its position.
But First Minister Alex Salmond argued that Scottish independence would mean that the US would have two great friends, rather than just one, on this side of the Atlantic. He also borrowed the president’s most famous campaign slogan: “Yes we can.”
Speaking on behalf of Better Together, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary and Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP Douglas Alexander said: “I welcome this important contribution by President Obama. His clear statement of support for the UK staying together will resonate with many of us here in Scotland.
“As a global statesman, president Obama understands that interdependence is a defining feature of our modern world, and that building bridges, not putting up new barriers, is the challenge of our generation.”
The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “President Obama has every right to explain to people how the break-up of Britain would affect our relationship with America.
“He clearly recognises the strong and effective partnership his country has with the UK and our many shared achievements through the years.
“Scotland walks taller, shouts louder and stands stronger on the world stage because we are part of the United Kingdom.”
Mr Salmond said: “As president Obama rightly observes, the decision on Scotland’s future is up to the people of Scotland.
“We are deeply fortunate as a nation that we have the opportunity to gain our nation’s independence in such a profoundly democratic way, as Mr Obama himself previously acknowledged – and not through conflict as has been the case with so many nations, including the United States itself.
“An independent Scotland will mean that America has two great friends and allies here rather than one.”
Mr Salmond added: “Our message to the people of Scotland in the campaign in the months ahead is, ‘Yes we can’.”
Many Twitter users criticised the president for intervening. One user, David White, wrote: “Obama should keep his nose out of the #indyref issue. It’s a matter for the Scots and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the UK.”
At yesterday’s joint press conference, Mr Obama and Mr Cameron also laid down new markers for Russia, giving Moscow a month to meet their conditions in the Ukraine or face further sanctions.
On that subject, the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont saw a chance to contrast the views Mr Salmond had expressed about Mr Obama with the qualified admiration he had voiced about the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Ms Lamont was keen to remind people that the First Minister had mentioned Mr Obama in a recent interview with GQ magazine in which he said he admired “certain aspects” of Mr Putin’s leadership and praised the way Russian pride had been restored.
During the same interview, Mr Salmond said he was a “great admirer” of Mr Obama’s campaigns, but suggested he thought the US president “could do more”.
Ms Lamont said: “In his infamous GQ interview, Alex Salmond slagged off president Obama and instead heaped praise on Vladimir Putin. He did not represent the views of many Scots who recognise the achievements of America’s first black president and will warmly welcome his views on Scotland.”