Cambridge Analytica/SCL's Alexander Nix. Image, Sam Barnes. CC2.0
A prominent campaign against Scottish independence, Scotland in Union, had talks with the controversial data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, openDemocracy can reveal.
William Ramsay, deputy chair of Scotland in Union, boasted to diners at an exclusive fundraising dinner in London last year that the pro-union group had been in talks with Cambridge Analytica.
Ramsay also said that Cambridge Analytica had told him about the Scottish National Party’s “army of supporters” and “sophisticated database” and joked about hacking SNP data.
Ramsay made the comments last November during a Scotland in Union fundraising dinner in the Caledonian club in London’s upmarket Belgravia. The £150 a head event was attended by a number of key Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat figures, including former Scottish deputy first minister Jim Wallace, Labour peer George Foulkes, and Jacob Rees Mogg’s wife, Helena.
During a speech after the dinner, Ramsay said: "The SNP have an army of supporters, and a sophisticated database - I know that from speaking to Cambridge Analytica the other day, who are not working for them, thank goodness.”
Cambridge Analytica has been accused of illegally accessing data of 87m Facebook accounts during president Trump’s election campaign and of engaging in ‘dirty tricks’ in elections around the world.
Speaking to an undercover openDemocracy reporter after his speech at the Scotland in Union fundraising dinner, Ramsay confirmed that Scotland in Union was in talks with the group, but was unsure whether they would be able to afford to employ the firm. However, he later said in a phone call that his organisation had decided not to use Cambridge Analytica because of the controversy around the firm’s use of data in both the US and the UK.
At the time of SiU’s announcement, the firm was best known for running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, for which it has been accused of stirring racism and Islamophobia.
But Ramsay said that Scotland in Union was interested in data analytics and even joked about hiring “a hacker to get into the SNP’s data.”
Cambridge Analytica has dominated headlines in Scotland in recent weeks. Last week Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted the SNP had met the company in 2016 but decided not to use them. In a testy debate in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson accused the SNP leader of looking “pretty shifty” in her party’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica.
Davidson has lent her support to Scotland in Union, and was one of dozens of MSPs that signed the pro-union groups ‘charter’ ahead of the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.
Shortly after the London dinner, Scotland in Union was plunged into crisis, as someone leaked their whole database to a group of pro-independence news outlets, revealing among other things that they had received £15,000 from a foreign national.
As a result of the leak, the organisation was investigated by the Electoral Commission for a potential breach of election law – though it claimed the money wasn’t included in the £100,000 they have spent on Scottish elections in recent years.
It is understood that Scotland in Union’s Will Ramsay was introduced to a representative from Cambridge Analytica at a business mentoring event in London but the pro-union outfit says it rebuffed later requests for a meeting with chief executive Pamela Nash because of concerns about Cambridge Analytica and their work.
“We have never worked with Cambridge Analytica or any other organisation of its kind,” a spokesperson for Scotland in Union said.
An SNP spokesperson said that the revelations about Scotland in Union having talks with Cambridge Analytica were “serious”, adding,
“CA have also spoken about meetings they have had in Scotland. These weren’t with the SNP, so who were they meeting and did anyone hire them? Pro-Brexit campaigners in Scotland need to say whether they were involved, as this comes on top of the murky donations funnelled to the Leave campaign through the DUP by the Scottish Tory-lined Constitutional Research Council.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives said: “The Scottish Conservatives have never had any contact with Cambridge Analytica, and don’t work with Scotland in Union.”
Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said:
"The hypocrisy here is really quite galling. The same politicians who have spent a week attacking another party for meeting Cambridge Analytica before deciding not to work with them are themselves closely associated with another organisation which has done exactly the same thing.
“Given the strong links between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians and Scotland in Union, I am sure they will now make the same demands of 'disclosure' from SiU that they have of others. And I'm sure we'd all appreciate some clarity from Labour and the Conservatives as to their links while they're at it, given that they are the only parties who have failed to clarify whether or not they have ever used Cambridge Analytica's services."
At a separate press conference in London yesterday, Cambridge Analytica spokesperson Clarence Mitchell said that “the SNP were very keen to work with Cambridge Analytica” but the Brexit referendum got in the way.
“There were a series of contacts,” Mitchell said. “The SNP were happy to have those discussions.”