By Alistair Bell
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The leader of Scotland's separatist movement predicted on Friday that the United States would not try to stand in the way of the breakup of Britain, Washington's staunchest ally for decades, if Scots vote for independence at a referendum this year.
Instead, the Obama administration could use the reasonably orderly debate in Britain about Scotland's future as an example to other countries facing constitutional crises, said Alex Salmond, the separatist leader who heads the Scottish National Party and who is Scotland's first minister.
"I don't foresee pressure. I don't think that is what the United States would want to do," Salmond told Reuters. "There are certain principles involved here. One is the principle of self determination. Secondly, the principle of a consented and peaceful process."
Pro-independence campaigners have long lagged in opinion polls behind supporters of maintaining Scotland's 307-year-old union with England. But Salmond's nationalists have closed the poll gap slightly ahead of the vote in September.
A March 20 poll showed that around 40 percent of Scots plan to vote for independence in this year's referendum while 45 percent intended to vote against it.
Such surveys have begun to be noticed by U.S. policymakers, who had previously presumed the unionists would win easily, said Heather Conley, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
Salmond said U.S. government officials had made public comments holding up the Scottish referendum process as an example of how to air separatist sentiment, as opposed to the abruptness of the recent Crimean referendum held in the shadow of Russian troops.
Russia's annexation of Crimea has not been recognized by the United States.
"The referendum in Scotland is an agreed, consensual, democratic, consented process," said Salmond, who was visiting New York to promote Scottish business and culture. "Who knows? It might become a template for how the world should conduct these matters."
Debate over Scotland has been mostly civil, and the British government of Prime Minister David Cameron agrees with holding the referendum but it strongly opposes the independence campaign and warns that Salmond's idea that Scotland could keep using the British pound after independence is badly flawed.
NATO, NUCLEAR SUBS
In the United States, government officials have started to worry about the possible dissolution of traditional ally Britain and plans by Salmond to throw Britain's Trident nuclear submarine fleet out of the Faslane naval base in western Scotland.
"The main questions on the U.S. side have so far been on the security front. On the idea of what's going to happen on the nuclear deterrent because obviously the U.S. has a large vested interest in the nuclear submarine capacity," said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington.
Salmond said U.S. officials had been balanced on the Scotland issue so far. "America, through the administration, has quite rightly adopted a platform of studied neutrality," he said.
A veteran of the British parliament in London as well as the devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh set up in 1999, Salmond was a strong critic of Britain's role in the Iraq war.
He acknowledged that while the debate over Scottish independence has been mostly constructive, there has been an explosion of online abuse between backers of union with England and Scottish nationalist "cyber-nats," who launched a campaign against singer David Bowie for calling on Scotland at a music award ceremony not to break away.
Salmond urged an end to the online bitterness.
"You say, 'Right look. Everyone raise your game. Do what you should do. Let's live up to this debate,'" he said.
He said claims that Scotland's more than 5 million people would suffer economically under independence are "just a hotchpotch, a ragbag of fears, smears, scare stories, some of them ridiculous, some of them with the attempt to be credible."
Companies and business groups have warned that Scotland could lose jobs if it splits from Britain, but Salmond's campaign received a boost last week when The Guardian newspaper quoted an unnamed British minister as acknowledging that London would eventually agree to let Scotland use the sterling currency if it became independent.
(Reporting by Alistair Bell; Editing by Leslie Adler)