Yes, proclaims the sign above a former shop in Dennistoun, a down-at-heel district of Glasgow. Since July, this has been the local outpost of the independence campaign Yes Scotland. The shop next door has been boarded up for renovation work, and every millimeter of plywood is plastered with posters offering a diametrically opposing message, in local vernacular—vote naw. The posters appeared overnight soon after the Yes campaign opened its doors ahead of what has become possibly the most impassioned vote in modern British history. Scotland has always been a scrappy nation, determined to stick up for itself and punching above its weight on the global stage, but as the country’s Sept. 18 referendum nears, those fighting instincts have been directed inward, pitting Scot against Scot. “Communities are divided and families split,” says Ken Taylor, a 69-year-old retired health worker who volunteers in the Dennistoun campaign outpost, explaining the issues as he sees them to anyone who asks how independence could benefit Scotland.
Taylor has supported his country’s nationalist movement for 50 years. The Yes campaign “still has a hill to climb, but at my age, hills don’t look so bad,” he says. He and his fellow activists are out every day trying to climb that hill by winning waverers over to their cause. Most opinion polls suggest Better Together, the organization striving to keep Scotland in the U.K., still has the edge, by as much as 14 points in some polls and as little as 4 points in one recent survey, but Yes Scotland continues to narrow the gap. A swath of Scotland’s nearly 4.2 million voters are still undecided or refusing to divulge their intentions. Any victory threatens to be narrow. Churches have begun planning for all that passion curdling to rancor by scheduling services of reconciliation on the Sunday after the result is announced.
There will be just a single question on the ballot paper: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”—in other words, Should Scots break the 307-year union that forged Great Britain? Scottish nationalism has often harnessed the Braveheart version of history to its cause. Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie is littered with inaccuracies, from the ubiquity of kilts four centuries before the garment became popular to the notion that perfidious English aristocrats subdued Scotland. In fact, England may have held the stronger hand at the time, but the 1707 union between the Scottish and English crowns was consensual, creating benefits and liabilities on both sides. Britain’s current coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats still supports that union. As does the opposition Labour Party, which won power in 1997 and the following year legislated to create a regional Scottish parliament in the hope that the move would siphon off any residual desire for independence.
But the powers the Scottish parliament enjoys—it determines health, education and housing policy and other Scottish matters, while U.K.-wide issues such as defense and foreign policy are set by the British government in London—have not dampened the yearning many Scots have for full autonomy. In 2011, elections to the Edinburgh-based parliament gave the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) an overall majority that not one polling organization had predicted. The SNP owed much of its success to the clever leadership of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who exploited his compatriots’ anger about Scotland’s rough ride under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and the Labour Party’s unpopular decision to enter the Iraq War. But the SNP has long stood for independence and campaigned on the promise of holding a referendum. The U.K. government agreed to legislate for a vote, gambling that Scots would opt by decisive majority to stay British, reinforcing the status quo and bringing the debate to an end, once and for all. That is beginning to look like a serious miscalculation.
However it plays out, scotland’s referendum is already causing shudders well beyond Britain’s borders. As the Yes campaign gained on Better Together, the British government, working in rare concert with Labour, tried to shore up Scotland’s fealty to the union by promising a further devolution of powers in the event that a majority of Scots vote No. But their pledge to Scotland—of greater tax-raising powers and more say in how to structure the Scottish welfare system—is feeding appetites in other parts of the U.K. for greater autonomy, not only among the citizens of Wales and Northern Ireland, but also in the cities and regions of England that feel themselves poorly represented in the British Parliament and overshadowed by the economic and political powerhouse that is London. Dave Sparks, head of the Local Government Association, a body representing more than 300 local authorities in England and Wales, said in an interview with Total Politics magazine that the ramifications of the referendum for expectations of greater decentralization of powers in those countries “are massive no matter what happens.”
Meanwhile, independence movements overseas are watching Scotland’s vote closely. In May, Belgium’s separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance, performed strongly in the country’s parliamentary elections. The long-restive Spanish region of Catalonia, emboldened by the Scottish example, has scheduled an independence referendum for November—though Spain’s central government says the poll will lack constitutional force. International change looks certain to flow from Scotland’s day of reckoning even if Scottish voters opt for business as usual.
But a Yes would unleash a much greater transformation—and would immediately pose crucial questions that currently lack answers. Scotland would likely have to reapply for the membership of the European Union it currently enjoys as part of the U.K. Nobody can say for sure how long this would take in the face of likely opposition from Belgium, Spain and other countries that would not wish to see a fight for independence rewarded and could veto Scottish membership. Then there’s the matter of which currency an independent Scotland would employ. Scots use the pound, but keeping it may not be a viable option because the three main British political parties have ruled out a formal sterling union. Scots would potentially find themselves using a currency over which they had no influence or, when and if the E.U. accepted an independent Scotland as a member, be forced to sign up to the crisis-ridden euro instead. Nor does anyone know how much debt the independent country would inherit in the breakup or how much it would earn from the North Sea oil and gas it would claim as its own. It’s also unclear whether the Queen would remain head of state or if the majority of Scots would even want her to.
That’s all before you get to the puzzles that a Disunited Kingdom would inevitably take years to solve: how to retool its political system and public finances and storied national broadcaster, the BBC; what to call itself (Lesser Britain?); whether to redesign the iconic Union flag, which currently incorporates Scotland’s cross of St. Andrew, the Saltire.
And then there’s the question of how this nation of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and storied army units like the Black Watch and the Scots Guards would go about defending itself. A standalone Scotland would likely have its own military, retaining some troops and assets that currently serve the wider U.K. But supporters of independence strongly favor a move that could fundamentally alter the standing of a rump Britain’s military. The Yes campaign has long promised to boot out Britain’s four submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles from their base in the deepwater harbor at Faslane, 65 km northwest of Glasgow. Salmond said this would signal a “guarantee that never again would [Scotland] be spilling and wasting our best blood in illegal wars like Iraq.” It’s a largely symbolic stance, but the SNP argues that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is also largely symbolic, a show of force not intended for use. The lack of a suitable alternative harbor means Lesser Britain might be forced into decommissioning its Trident program. It has no land-based nuclear weapons.
“The outside world has got a stake in [Scotland’s referendum],” says George Robertson, a Scot and a Labour politician who served as NATO’s Secretary-General and now sits in the House of Lords. He fears the U.K. minus Scotland and its regiments and battalions would be less capable of joining in military or diplomatic interventions. In a world going through a particularly volatile period, he says, now is not the time to show disunity and fragmentation. “We have a confrontation with Russia that is now boiling up; we’ve got the Middle East in meltdown; we’ve got forces coming out of Afghanistan; we’ve got the South and East China seas becoming the arena for the next great global confrontation. If the U.K. breaks in two, it effectively goes into lockdown for the next two or three years, unpicking 300 years of integration. [Independence for Scotland] removes a key component of the global security framework.”
Nationalists characterize such bleak pronouncements by union supporters as scaremongering. Better Together “is running a deeply cynical campaign, probably the most negative in British political history,” says Blair Jenkins, a former television executive now spearheading Yes Scotland from its headquarters on Glasgow’s Hope Street (an office selected in part for its resonant address). “The oil’s going to run out,” says Jenkins, mimicking his opponents. He insists that “there are at least 50 years of highly lucrative oil revenues to come to Scotland, which is the period during which we need to transition into a different kind of economy largely based on renewable energy.” He cites another small oil-producing country, Norway, as a role model for Scotland. “All the signs are that small independent countries are doing better in lots of ways [than larger nations], not just in terms of the strength of their economies but also in terms of social outcomes.” (It’s worth noting, though, that Norway, with about the same population as Scotland, today produces twice as much oil as the entire U.K.)
Since coming to power in 2010, Britain’s coalition government has pursued budget-cutting policies and worked to trim the size of the state. The devolved Scottish government has taken a contrasting higher-spending route. Tuition fees had been introduced at universities across the U.K. before devolution. In Scotland higher education is free to Scottish and E.U. students (with the controversial exception of students from the rest of the U.K., who are liable for fees). Universities everywhere else in the U.K. charge tuition. Older Scots receive subsidized personal and nursing care at home despite the spiraling costs of the scheme. There is deep disagreement about who exactly is paying for this: the British government calculates that Scotland accounts for 8.3% of the U.K.’s output but 9.3% of public spending. Nationalists argue that revenues of oil and gas from Scottish waters have benefited the whole of the U.K. at the expense of the Scots.
Many Scots also see the referendum as a contest between two economic models. The Yes campaign paints a vision of an independent Scotland as a social democratic, oil-rich utopia—Norway with good whisky. Better Together draws a very different picture, of a country without sufficient revenues to support its profligate habits, shorn of the financial backstop provided by the U.K. that saw the British government ride to the rescue of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008. Yes Scotland estimates that every citizen will be better off to the tune of £600 ($995) a year if the country becomes independent, not just because of oil revenues but also the boost to productivity and growth the change would deliver. Better Together says each basic-rate taxpayer would have to shell out an extra £1,000 ($1,658) to maintain public spending.
A few blocks from Hope Street, perched in his own cramped operations base above a shopping mall, Better Together’s chief Alistair Darling chooses his words carefully. As a Scot, he knows how his compatriots react to being lectured, especially by perceived outsiders. Though Darling has represented an Edinburgh constituency since 1987, he has done so in the British rather than Scottish parliament, serving as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2007 through the global banking crisis and until Labour’s 2010 ouster. To some Scots, that makes him almost a foreigner. When English cultural heroes David Bowie and J.K. Rowling urged the case for the union, they earned vitriolic responses from “cybernats”—pro-independence users of social media. In June, President Obama finally risked a similar intervention, saying the U.S. backed a “strong and united” U.K.—but only after months of behind-the-scenes discussions about whether to do so risked provoking an unhelpful backlash among Scottish voters.
So Darling is measured, even a little mournful, responding to a question about his own feelings with a plaintive “It’s my country too.” The subject of oil, however, provokes a brief flash of anger. The Yes campaign keeps exaggerating the riches that would accrue to an independent Scotland from the North Sea, says Darling. “You think, ‘Come on. Grow up.’”
Since the 1960s, when britain first began drilling in the North Sea, the revenue generated by oil and gas discovered under the seabed has transformed Scotland’s fortunes, creating wealth and jobs in a bounty shared with the rest of the U.K. and projected to flow for many years to come. Exactly how big the bounty will be is one of the key points of contention between the Yes and No campaigns. The Yes campaign backs a report by an organization called N-56 predicting a North Sea oil bonanza worth up to £365 billion ($605 billion) in revenues between now and 2041; Better Together puts credence in a forecast by the U.K. Office for Budget Responsibility that projects earnings of a more modest £61.6 billion ($102 billion) in the same period. All sorts of things—war, fracking, environmental measures—may push oil prices up or down, and expert opinion is divided on how large the reserves are. On Aug. 25, in the second of two televised debates between Salmond and Darling, the No-campaign leader pointed out that the market for oil and gas is “notoriously volatile.” Salmond retorted that Darling and his pro-union colleagues were unique in viewing Scotland’s oil as a “curse.” (The issue of how much of it is actually Scotland’s oil rather than Britain’s is one of many topics that would be up for negotiation in the event of a Yes vote.)
The dispute between the two camps over something as basic as the size and value of the oil and gas reserves—let alone how to divide them—has unnerved some business owners and leaders. “Going independent would be a sort of sea change in terms of the level of uncertainty,” says Christopher Campbell, managing director of Campbells Prime Meat, a family business supplying meat, fish and delicatessen products to the catering industry in Scotland. Campbell will vote No. But others see the potential upside of operating in a more closely knit business environment. Douglas Cameron is head of branding, marketing and design specialists Eden Consultancy, which is based, like Campbells Prime Meat, in the Falkirk region, a part of Scotland that has benefited from North Sea oil. He wonders if smaller might be better. “In terms of being an agile forward-looking economy with big global hitters that are actually in your territory, independence would appear to offer Scotland a number of opportunities that the U.K. doesn’t,” he says. He describes himself as “one of the great undecided.”
For all the statistics traded by the opposing campaigns, the choice facing Scots is between the familiar setup—the devil they know, as nationalists see it—and a leap of faith. Can any country, especially a small one, really hold its own in the teeth of global economic and political forces? Those same forces have left voters across the world feeling they have little say in their own fate. For people in Scotland on both sides of the debate, the referendum appears a rare opportunity to assert their views and chart their national destiny. Ken Taylor says he has never seen “such a remarkable public involvement and interest” in his native country. A record turnout is expected on Sept. 18 with the count predicted to stretch into the next day.
Yet whatever Scotland decides, it’s likely that little over half of voters will feel empowered. The rest will wake up to find themselves living in a country whose core political identity they have just voted against, facing a process of reconciliation that could last for years. If Scotland has embarked on the path to independence, the horse-trading and restructuring required until that identity solidifies may last longer still.
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