No concrete evidence of how Russia meddled in Scottish Independence vote

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.
Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond both campaigned for an independent Scotland. Credit: PA

This Russia Report was apparently going to lay into the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, exposing Moscow’s interference in an attempt to break up Britain.

That’s what leaks to newspapers over the weekend hinted at with trails of what this long awaited dossier was supposedly going to say. 

It all turned out to be - ironically enough, given the subject matter - spin and disinformation.

And it did the Scottish independence campaign a disservice. 

There was no concrete evidence of exactly how Russia seemingly meddled for either side in 2014, and to what extent.

The reality was one short, heavily redacted paragraph in the report that even mentioned Scotland’s referendum.

And it told us, well, not very much other than Russian media reports about the vote are viewed with suspicion.

That is, of course, not to say Russia wasn’t watching the situation six years ago with a keen eye for opportunity.

Scotland becoming independent would be in Russia’s interests.

It means, by definition, destabilising the United Kingdom.

A "Yes" vote in 2014 would have resulted in the UK suddenly losing one-third of its land mass, including the Faslane base for its Trident nuclear deterrent.

It would have opened to the door to genuine questions being asked about why the remaining chunk of a fractured United Kingdom should keep its permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council. 

In short, Scotland voting to leave the UK creates a window for chaos, disruption, and division.

It has the potential to weaken America’s closest ally and Russia’s Cold War foe.

That is the kind of outcome Putin’s regime has come to thrive on when it comes to their zero-sum game of international relations and power politics.

The Russian strategy has been seen in action already in countries much closer to Moscow - see Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia.

The tactics have been to nurture Russian minority groups, funding programmes to encourage Russian cultural programmes and language, and helping them become organised.

A wedge is placed between these pro-Russian groups and the government of the land, and Kremlin influence has room to grow. 

Nicola Sturgeon campaigning for an independent Scotland. Credit: PA

In the UK, the Scottish independence movement is a ready-made wedge already in place - or rather a thorn in the side of the UK, a founding member of NATO, that could potentially be twisted to cause maximum pain.

There were also some interesting events that followed the 2014 vote. Firstly, after the referendum, Russian state controlled media outlet called Sputnik set up its UK bureau.

Sputnik is widely regarded as an arm of the Russian propaganda machine. Unlike most international newsrooms, Sputnik didn’t choose the UK capital for its base, though. They opened up their operation in Edinburgh. 

A year later, Alex Salmond, the former leader of Scotland’s independence campaign, lost his seat at Westminster.

He was promptly given his own slot on Russia Today to host a current affairs programme.

Salmond insists he has complete editorial independence from RT. But of all the channels in all the world…

Of course, Vladimir Putin is no friend of the Scottish independence cause.

Him wishing for a Scotland break-away would merely be a means to his end goal of undermining rival states for Russia’s gain.

As Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Tuesday when asked about the Russia Report: “I would say the Scottish independence movement, and the kind of values I and my party stand for, I do not think could be further removed from the kind of values Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime stand for.”

The majority of Scots voted against an independent Scotland. Credit: PA

The vote on September 18, 2014 also followed a two-year long campaign.

I covered it every step of the way and the engagement was truly impressive.

Debates were breaking out on street corners.

A few days before the referendum, I was in the changing rooms at a 5-a-side football facility and overheard a group of men politely disagree about an independent Scotland’s currency options while doing their warm up.

Most people heard every permutation of the pros and cons of independence before making their mind up.

Scotland was informed, turnout was high, and the Yes side lost fairly convincingly.

So if Russia did try to influence things, their influence wasn’t exactly effective.

The world has also changed a lot in the last six months never mind six years since that 2014 referendum.

The Scottish independence campaign now has a new leader, new focus, and in Brexit there is a new grievance creating fertile ground for renewed support.

The fresh momentum behind Scotland’s independence movement suggests they could now win a vote. 

In fact, Strathclyde University’s polling guru, Professor John Curtice, told me today that for the first time ever the Yes side would be considered favourites to win.

He believes this recent swing is largely based on the perception Nicola Sturgeon has dealt with the Covid crisis much better than Boris Johnson.

David Cameron holds a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Turkey Leaders Summit in Antalya, Turkey in 2015 Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Rightly or wrongly, there is a belief she communicated more clearly and demonstrates greater competency in these testing times, and crucially that Scotland started to fare better when the first minister took the initiative to move away from the prime minister’s four-nations approach to coronavirus. 

Lockdown has allowed Scotland to flex its devolved muscles and show people what is really possible.

SNP insiders tell me their mantra is now "show don’t tell" for winning the argument over independence.

It’s unlikely allegations Russia tried to interfere with the old vote six years ago will alter that perception very much. 

It is also unlikely to convince Scottish voters that independence is a bad idea simply because it could suit Russia - Scots are simply too personally involved in the debate for that now, and they care far more about hearing from people who can tell them what independence would mean for pensions, the economy and the NHS.

What this report warns us is Russia will be watching should the Scotland question arise again.

We know malicious outside agents are already exploiting social media with ‘bots’ and industrial-scale disinformation is being pumped out directly onto the screens in our homes and in our hands. It is a challenge to fight that kind of enemy but we have to find a way. 

If there is a second independence referendum, the onus is now on both sides to correct the lies, to refute completely the conspiracy theories, and agree to protect our democracy from outside interference. That’s the only way people will have faith in it being a fair and free vote once again.