TIME Scotland

Scotland’s Independence Movement Gets a Boost From the Final TV Debate

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and Alistair Darling, chairman of Better Together, take part in a live television debate by the BBC in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries on Aug. 25, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and Alistair Darling, chairman of Better Together, take part in a live television debate by the BBC in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries on Aug. 25, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images

A strong debate performance by Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond lifts spirits in the Yes camp but may not sway doubters

How might an independent Scotland differ from the country that is currently part of the United Kingdom? When two of Scotland’s highest profile politicians—First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party and Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling of the Labour Party—faced off against each other on Aug. 5 in the first of two debates ahead of the Sept. 18 referendum, only viewers north of the England-Scotland border reliably got to hear their answers to this question. The debate was broadcast on TV in Scotland only while a live feed on the website of Scottish broadcaster STV seized up under the weight of would-be viewers elsewhere in the U.K.

Last night’s rematch, by contrast, could be viewed without technical hitches on televisions and computer screens throughout Britain and Northern Ireland because it was broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which serves the whole of the U.K. The BBC is one of many institutions that potentially faces radical surgery to cut it into unequal chunks if a majority of Scotland’s 4.2 million voters agree with Salmond and opt to break with the rest of Britain.

Snap polls judged Salmond the loser of the first debate, by 44% to 56%—closely mirroring the split polling organizations have been finding between supporters of Yes Scotland, the independence campaign, and Better Together, the organization arguing for maintaining the union. The second debate Monday night, by contrast, gifted Salmond a decisive victory over Better Together’s Darling, by 71% to 29%, giving heart to proponents of independence who have just three and a half weeks to convince the ranks of the undecided that smaller is better. “Not Tonight, Darling” read the headline in one Scottish tabloid.

Until last night, both campaigns had focused heavily on the economy. The Yes campaign has calculated that Scots would benefit by £600 ($995) a year in a standalone Scotland that kept its North Sea oil and gas revenues rather than sharing them with the rest of Britain. The No campaign “Better Together“—it tries to keep things polite by styling itself “No Thanks”—says taxpayers in an independent Scotland would have to shell out an additional £1,000 ($1,658) per annum to maintain current levels of public spending.

Standing at lecterns in front of a lurid purple backdrop at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, the rotund Salmond and the spare Darling traded well-rehearsed blows about how much oil and gas is actually left to be pumped in the North Sea and what it would be worth. (The Scottish independence movement is counting on revenue from North Sea oil and gas to keep the new country financially afloat.) Darling pointed out that the market for oil and gas is “notoriously volatile and uncertain.” Salmond retorted that Darling and his pro-union colleagues were unique in viewing Scotland’s oil as a “curse.”

The men also tangled over the British pound. Salmond wants independent Scotland to keep using sterling in a formal currency union with the rest of Britain that would give Scotland a voice in the management of the currency. But Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and Darling’s opposition Labour Party have all ruled out such an arrangement. Last night Salmond scored a hit with the audience by asserting that if denied a currency union, Scotland could refuse to shoulder its share of public debt. The pro-union camp aims “to deny us the assets of the Bank of England,” he said. “The reason that won’t happen is that if you deny us the financial assets, then the U.K. will get stuck with all of the liabilities.” Darling called this scenario “nonsense”.

But the defining moment of the debate came not during one of these testy exchanges, but when a member of the audience asked about one of the few other British institutions as beloved both sides of the border as the BBC: the National Health Service (NHS). Salmond walked out from behind his lectern and came to the front of the stage. The only way to protect the NHS, he said, was to vote for independence. “To have a health service we can rely on, you’ve got to have financial control as well as political control.” He painted the choice for Scotland as one between a caring social democratic model championed by his government and the austerity policies that have been implemented by the Conservative-led ruling coalition in London. He then rounded on Darling, accusing the Labour politician of being “in bed with the Tory Party.”

That’s a potent insult in Scotland. Support for the Conservatives has never recovered from Margaret Thatcher’s decision to levy a hated tax called the Community Charge on Scots a year before introducing it to the rest of Britain, nor from Tory opposition to the devolution that the Labour Party eventually piloted to give Scotland the parliament and government Salmond now leads. There are twice as many pandas in Scotland as Conservative MPs, as Scots like to point out. (One of the two pandas housed in Edinburgh zoo, Tian Tian, is thought to be pregnant, so the bears may soon outnumber the sole Scottish Tory MP David Mundell by three to one.)

Salmond hopes Scottish voters will use the forthcoming referendum to define themselves against the rest of Britain—and in particular against the government in Westminster. But with the Yes campaign trailing the Nos by as much as 14 points, Salmond’s strong performance in the second debate may not be sufficient to persuade a majority in Scotland that the best way to protect their storied institutions against cuts is to cut them in two.

TIME Scotland

Audiences Already Voting on Scottish Independence at Arts Festival

Edinburgh Festival Celebrated On The Royal Mile
Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers perform on the Royal Mile on August 14, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The largest performing arts festival in the world, this year's festival hosts more than 3,000 shows in nearly 300 venues across the city. Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images

It's an overwhelming YES vote at the end of one play showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The voters of Scotland must wait until the Sept. 18 referendum to decide whether they want to remain citizens of Great Britain or become citizens of a newly independent country. But audiences at a play currently on as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been casting their votes on a daily basis. Towards the end of Alan Bissett’s play, The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, everybody in the auditorium is asked to hold up his or her program, folded to show a YES for Scottish independence or a NO for remaining in the United Kingdom. After a stunning piece of theater, in which the devil Black Donald in Scottish lore plots to keep Scotland too scared and befuddled to choose to go it alone, audiences reliably deliver a landslide for the YES camp.

In the real world, the polls have been showing a different outcome, with the campaign for staying in the Union maintaining a lead of 46% to 36% according to the latest poll. But a record turnout is expected perhaps as high as 80%; and with 16- and 17-year-olds allowed for the first time to cast a ballot and a swathe of voters genuinely undecided, the referendum promises to be a nail-biter. Nobody can say for sure how an independent Scotland would function or what its wider impact would be, but everybody knows its separation from England, Wales and Northern Ireland would unleash a period of even greater uncertainty. Great Britain might need a new name (Lesser Britain?) and a new flag (the current, and iconic, Union flag incorporates the cross of Scotland’s St. Andrew). Scotland might need a new currency and a new relationship with the European Union. The pro-independence campaign predicts a standalone Scotland would flourish like parts of Scandinavia, an example of virtuous social democracy, a caring state contrasting with its neoliberal, austerity-ridden neighbors to the south. Voices arguing for Union suggest little Scotland would falter outside the U.K.’s protective embrace.

Defense chiefs worry that the Scottish National Party’s pledge to rid an independent Scotland of nuclear warheads would entail the loss to the remainder of the United Kingdom of its nuclear deterrent, currently carried on submarines based at Faslane on the Scottish coast, because there is no suitable alternative site in England. In some gloomy scenarios, the U.K. stands to lose its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council because of its diminished size and might. It would certainly lose at least some of its capacity, and willingness, to intervene in foreign conflicts. Separatist movements in other countries would surely take heart from Scotland’s example. And for years to come politicians in the British parliament their numbers reduced by the loss of Scottish colleagues, handing the Conservatives, who have only one Scottish member of the British parliament at present, a huge advantage over Labour, who would to lose 41 MPs at a stroke would wrangle with their empowered opposite numbers in the current Scottish parliament over the divorce settlement. The key points of contention: who owns North Sea oil and gas, and who keeps Scotland’s debt?

The choice facing voters is all about the future, but as Bissett’s play demonstrates, many of the arguments roiling the debate are rooted in a mythical past. In the first scene a sprite from folklore, Bogle (the name gave rise to the term “bogeyman”), picks up a DVD of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and says, emotionally, “that film gets me every time”. The movie’s false version of history of a Scotland subdued by England through treachery and muscle and not, in a more complex reality, entering the Union as partners and often benefiting from it has for years provided fuel to the independence movement. Bissett’s pro-independence play suggests that the Scottish will no longer depend on their tartan mythologies when they are freed, not from England but their own fears.

Elsewhere in Edinburgh, holding its famous concurrent arts festivals, alternative visions for Scotland are being laid out on stages and at podiums far more pungently than politicians dare risk. All Back to Bowie’s, a daily cabaret involving panel debates, comedy and poetry derives its name from David Bowie’s pro-Union message to Scotland: “stay with us”. The organisers pretend to have taken this invitation at face value and set the action in a tent atop Bowie’s Manhattan apartment. Again, sentiment routinely skews towards independence.

The audiences may not reflect Scotland’s voting population, but the appeal of the independence message against the sobersided caution of the pro-Union camp is clear. Come September, life may just imitate art and deliver a verdict that will resonate far beyond Great Britain or whatever the rump nation decides to call itself.

TIME Scotland

Pro-Independence Leader Falters in First Scottish Independence Debate

Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland talks the media after debating with Alistair Darling chairman of Better Together in a televised event from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on August 5, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, talks the media after debating with Alistair Darling chairman of Better Together in a televised event from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on August 5, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images

Despite a confident opening, Scotland's First Minister floundered after failing to say what currency an independent Scotland would use

The first major televised debate of the Scottish independence referendum campaign took place on Tuesday night, with Scotland’s pro-independence leader Alex Salmond faltering on key questions.

On September 18, residents of Scotland aged 16 and older will be able to vote “yes” or “no” in a referendum that will pose the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

With six weeks to go before the vote, Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, went head-to-head with Alistair Darling, a Scottish MP for the Labour Party and the leader of the unionist Better Together campaign. The two-hour debate took place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and was only broadcast on the Scottish television channel STV. Viewers elsewhere in the U.K. were told to tune into a live stream on STV’s website. Unfortunately, the service quickly crashed, infuriating people across the U.K.

Those who managed to watch the debate saw Salmond come down hard on Westminster, the seat of the British parliament, which he claimed didn’t represent Scotland’s interests. He told the 350 audience members that Scotland could easily be a successful independent country, adding: “For more than half of my life, Scotland has been governed by parties the we didn’t elect at Westminster… They are the same people who… are telling us that this country can’t run our own affairs.”

Calling the referendum “the opportunity of a lifetime,” Salmond insisted “no one, absolutely no one, will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland.”

Darling cut a less emotive figure. The former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer—the country’s finance minister—told listeners the vote concerned their future and warned against patriotism clouding their judgment. “There are times that, for the love of our family and the love of our country, it’s sometimes best to say ‘no’—not because we can’t, but simply because it is not the best thing to do,” Darling said.

Advising caution, Darling added: “In six weeks’ time, we will make the biggest decision that we’ve ever made here in Scotland—and remember this, if we decide to leave, there is no going back—there’s no second chance.”

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and Alistair Darling, chairman of Better Together take part in a live television debate hosted by Bernard Ponsonby at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on August 5, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell—Getty Images

Though Salmond started the debate with confidence, Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported that he then “dawdled downhill” with a performance that was “woeful” compared to Darling’s more spirited one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Darling emerged as the winner Tuesday night with 56% of the 512 people surveyed by ICM for the Guardian newspaper declaring him victorious.

Much of the debate centered on questions over Scotland’s financial future. On February 13, the U.K.’s current Chancellor, George Osborne, said that if Scotland left its 307-year-old union with England and leaves the U.K., it would be unable to keep the pound. This proved a sticking point in the debate, as Salmond began to falter when Darling persistently questioned him over his plans for Scotland’s economy.

Again and again, Darling asked Salmond “what is plan B?” But the First Minister only said he was “in favor of keeping the pound sterling” over the euro, despite being booed by at least one audience member.

“Any eight-year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the capital of a country and its currency,” said Darling. “I presume the flag is the Saltire [Scotland's national flag], I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can’t tell us what currency we will have.” Darling added that the E.U. might not allow Scotland to re-join if they become independent, meaning they couldn’t adopt the euro.

Salmond, for his part, repeatedly asked Darling to accept that Scotland could be a successful independent country, claiming that it has contributed £8 billion ($13.5 billion) to the U.K. treasury. Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, declared the debate, “a clear win for the Yes campaign—a positive, optimistic and visionary case presented by the First Minister against another dose of negativity and scaremongering from Mr. Darling.”

Yet the debate failed to impress the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. In an editorial, they wrote: “For a debate that looked too long on paper it was actually surprising how few topics got a reasonable airing. If time allocated is any indicator of interest or concern among the public then there is no doubt that the post-independence currency is the stand-out issue.”

Salmond’s performance on that topic will likely have disappointed his supporters who were hoping for a strong victory that could boost their low polling figures. The most recent poll says independence has just 34% of voter support. Those championing Scotland’s independence will be hoping that in the next debate, due to take place later this month, their leader can turn things around.

TIME Scotland

JK Rowling Doesn’t Want an Independent Scotland

The author of the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling, has donated $1.68m to the Better Together campaign which opposes independence for Scotland

JK Rowling has donated $1.68 million (1 million pounds) to the campaign against Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, the BBC reports. The Better Together campaign is being run by Alistair Darling, the author’s friend and former Labour chancellor.

On 18 September, Scottish voters will be invited to vote “yes” or “no” to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Rowling, who was born in England but has lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for over 20 years, explained her decision to support the “no” campaign in a 1,289 word post on her website.

Seemingly careful to avoid causing offense, Rowling stressed that “there are intelligent, thoughtful people on both sides of this question.” However, the author added “there is a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence.”

Recognizing that she might not be seen as truly Scottish by nationalists, whom she labelled “a little Death Eaterish” in reference to a wraithlike creature from her Harry Potter novels, Rowling emphasized: “I happen to think that this country is exceptional, too.”

She went on, however, to add: “The simple truth is that Scotland is subject to the same twenty-first century pressures as the rest of the world… The more I listen to the Yes campaign, the more I worry about its minimisation and even denial of risks.”

Rowling is not the first big donor to enter the debate. Earlier this year, lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir donated £1m to the Scottish National Party who support independence.

Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary, thanked Rowling for her donation. She commented: ““It doesn’t take a wizard to work out that Alex Salmond’s case for breaking up the UK simply isn’t a risk worth taking.”


TIME Scotland

Scottish Independence Could Put Whisky Makers on the Rocks, Study Says

Daily Life On Orkney
Dave Reid inspects the quality of the heather filled peat, from Hobbister Moor, in Highland Park whisky distillery on May 30, 2014 in Kirkwall, Scotland. Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert—Getty Images

A vote for Scottish independence could expose local distilleries to costly and unpredictable swings in foreign exchange rates, a new report warns

A new study suggests a Scottish vote in favor of independence could boomerang on one of the nation’s proudest exports: Scotch whisky.

Analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch say that Scotland’s upcoming vote for independence on September 18th risks severing the nation from the British pound, forcing it to create its own currency and casting it into a brave new world of fluctuating exchange rates. Whisky makers, in particular, could absorb the brunt of the shocks. They account for the nation’s second largest export and ship to roughly 200 countries around the world, according to the report.

“At present, the large producers typically invoice Scotch whisky in U.S. dollars,” the authors wrote. “As such the main transactional FX risk faced is the movement in Sterling/US$ which is typically hedged on a 12 month basis. A volatile currency would likely be more difficult and expensive to hedge making pricing and planning decisions harder. “

That would mean a possible contraction of investment, fewer barrels of Scotch and a slightly less satisfied global population of Scotch drinkers.

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