Disunited Kingdom: Scotland’s separatists cling to hope

After centuries of uneasy union, Scotland is poised to vote on independence. The end of Great Britain may be closer than we think.

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

On a recent Monday evening, a handful of people met at their usual rendezvous point: an immense parking lot outside of a grocery store in Bathgate, Scotland, an old industrial town of 15,000 that lies on the M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. A short drive away is the spot where British Leyland, the auto manufacturer, used to be located—before it was busted up in the ’80s, leaving not much of anything in its place.

It was, as the locals would say, pissing rain. Yet there was Rab Cruickshank, who works at a local airport and is a “staunch trade unionist.” And Bill Robertson, with his houndstooth coat and his tobacco pipe—and his sense that Scotland, in its dealings with England, “got a raw deal, got totally ignored.” They had gathered, as they regularly do, to march off to convince the fine people of Bathgate that after three centuries of union, it is time for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom. “I don’t see what makes Scotland different from the rest of the world,” said Robertson. “We can look after our own affairs.”

These are Scotland’s modern-day freedom fighters, continuing a centuries-old campaign that took root in 1707, when Scotland and England were first united after centuries of war. Some 30 km northeast of here is the spot where, in 1314, a contingent of scrappy Scottish warriors routed King Edward II’s army of English invaders at Bannockburn. The famous battle gave Scots hope, for a while, that England could be kept at bay.

Fighting between the two lands would continue, in fits and spurts, for the next 300 years, despite some rather pressing distractions (the Black Death, the Hundred Years War with France, the Protestant Reformation). In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless and her heir, King James VI of Scotland, seized the English crown, declaring himself the “King of Great Britain.” But it would take another century—and another invasion of Scotland, by Oliver Cromwell, during the English Civil War—before both sides agreed on the conditions for a political union, under a shared parliament. That the fight had gone on so long made the 1707 Treaty of Union seem all the more like a betrayal to Scottish nationalists. “The Scots deserve no pity,” the patriot Andrew Fletcher would write, in 1706, “if they voluntarily surrender . . . to the mercy of a united Parliament.” Scottish parliamentarians, he warned, “may dance round to all eternity, in this trap of their own making.”

This United Kingdom has held strong, but the marriage has often been unhappy. Fighting between the Scots and the English continued, leading up to the abortive 1820 Scottish Insurrection, a week of unrest in Glasgow in which radical Scottish protesters demanded union reforms. The movement was crushed. In the late 20th century, the spirit of independence was renewed under a wildly unpopular Margaret Thatcher. She left office in 1990, but her legacy endures in a popular nationalist narrative, which posits that Scotland and England have grown apart and that wee Scotland will forever be denied a government of its choosing in the U.K.

In today’s fight, longbows have been replaced by clipboards. On the outskirts of the parking lot, the Bathgate canvassers pulled on raincoats and hats and buttons: all, bright blue and featuring the word ‘Yes’ (the one-word slogan of the pro-independence campaign). Audra McKee, an exceptionally jolly schoolteacher, wore thick blue mascara to match. “She’s taken like a duck to water,” said the group’s soft-spoken coordinator, Kenny Anderson, with a nod of approval. Sufficiently adorned, the gang moved to a nearby residential block. Their main objective, said Kenny, is to identify undecided voters: that critical 10 to 20 per cent (estimates vary) of Scots who are unsure whether to vote for or against Scottish independence in a referendum next month. Once identified, an undecided might be scheduled for a follow-up visit, or sent some targeted campaign literature, or invited to a town hall meeting or a ladies’ coffee hour. The canvassers have been working the area several nights a week for the last two years.

On Sept. 18, voters in Scotland will answer a rather simple Yes/No question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If the majority answers yes, then Scotland will go the way of Ireland; it will break from the U.K. and declare independence—and thus dissolve the 307-year-old union. One of the world’s oldest democracies will break asunder. The U.K. will lose nearly 10 per cent of its population and a third of its land mass. Depending on one’s position, Scotland will either cast off the yoke of English rule or render Great Britain a great deal less great.

As it stands, the No side (officially, “Better Together,” with the slogan “No thanks”) is ahead—but by how much? In earlier surveys, No showed a 20-point lead. But an August Survation poll of 1,000 Scots shows a far narrower margin: with No at 46 per cent, Yes at 40 per cent and 14 per cent undecided. In these final weeks, the race suddenly appears much tighter than expected. Data released in July by the British Election Study (a long-term research project run by several British universities) shows that undecided voters are shifting toward Yes.

With a month to go, the champions of Yes—the left-leaning Scottish National Party (SNP) and its wily leader, Alex Salmond—continue their full court campaign. The free Scotland of their imagination is now within reach: blocked only by a Tory government in London, which sees Scotland as “too wee, too poor, too stupid” (as the old saying, repeated often by Yes campaigners, goes) to decide things for itself. Meanwhile, the No side—a tangled coalition of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour—continues its less sexy fight: to keep things as they are, troubled though they may be.

The campaign is still shaped by known unknowns. There are disagreements about essential questions, such as whether a stand-alone Scotland would retain the British pound (yes says Yes, no says No) or be a member of the European Union if it separates. Yes says Scots will be $1,800 a year better off if they leave; No says Scots will be $2,500 a year richer if they stay.

How convincingly these pocketbook claims are made could indeed prove decisive: Scottish voters have seemed far more motivated by financial considerations than they are by separatist or unionist fervor. This is a campaign defined by ceaseless debates about North Sea oil projections, central bank policy and the viability of disparate pension schemes—not separatist romance or whimsical feelings deep in voters’ Scottish bones. Kenny Anderson, the leader of the Bathgate canvassers, says he remains “more an economic nationalist than a sentimental nationalist.”

But the tone of the campaign is changing. Three years of endless rhapsodizing about “our children’s future,” and who is mortgaging it, has given way to some more pointed charges. Yes accuses No of fear-mongering—and of running a campaign that boils down to “Ye cannae do it.” No accuses Yes of conducting some seriously bad math (particularly as applied to Scotland’s North Sea oil reserves)—and of inspiring a crude tribalism. In 2013, a Conservative member of Scottish Parliament expressed concern about an uptick in racist attacks against English people in Scotland and cited recent “anti-English rhetoric.” J.K. Rowling, the Edinburgh-based Harry Potter author, donated $1.8 million to Better Together and wrote a piece on her website that decried the “fringe of nationalists who like to demonize anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence.”

The promised consequences of a Yes vote get ever more dire down south, where some English MPs claim that independence would “wreck” Britain’s nuclear deterrent and international standing. Others warn that Scottish independence could kick up trouble in Northern Ireland—or, heaven forbid, Wales. A Survation poll from July shows that 21 per cent of Scots have fallen out with a friend, family member or colleague over the referendum debate.

Voter turnout on Sept. 18 is expected to be historically high: pushing 80 per cent. The Yes side says a stand-alone Scotland would be viable by 2016. No one predicts a smooth divorce.

Yes Scotland’s campaign headquarters is a nondescript office space on Hope Street, in central Glasgow. Inside, a sparse lobby (clean lines, mounted iPads) gives way to a cluttered back room. Teetering piles of paper sit atop a stained green carpet. Serious-looking adults sip tea over Mac computers. Maps are pasted to the wall with multicoloured pins marking areas of tactical importance. There are campaign posters everywhere: Mona Lisa in a Yes shirt, Spock in a Yes starship uniform.

Over the last two years, Yes Scotland has distinguished itself with an intense grassroots campaign: what organizers nostalgically describe as a return to old-school politicking. Its town-hall meetings and house-by-house schmoozing have the feel of a small-town mayoral race.

On a weekday in July, Maclean’s is greeted by Ross Greer, a campaign coordinator for Yes Scotland, which is championed by the SNP, the Green Party and the very fringe Scottish Socialist Party. At just 20 years old, Greer hardly looks the part of nation builder in his wire-rimmed spectacles and a green T-shirt bearing the anti-fascist slogan “No parasán.” “It goes back to the Spanish Civil War,” he explains—before refuting the latest slew of referendum polls, which all show the Yes side trailing. Greer insists that undecided voters are breaking 2:1 for Yes.

It has been a long haul for Scotland’s independence warriors. Founded in 1934, the SNP spent decades on the “tartan fringe” of Scottish politics. Early members were bound by little more than a shared loathing of the English. But this began to change in the 1960s when Britain’s imperial decline gave a boost to Scottish nationalism—as did the discovery of rich oil fields under the North Sea. “It’s Scotland’s oil!” became a popular nationalist cry.

Scotland held its first referendum in 1979, but it offered something less than full independence. Scots were asked whether they wanted their own devolved national assembly—and a majority did. But voter turnout was sufficiently low for London to ignore the result. Another referendum was held in 1997: 74 per cent voted in favour of devolution and, in 1999, a new parliament was convened. Scotland was left with two governments, a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the British Parliament in London (to which Scotland contributes 59 of 650 MPs). Today, the Scottish Parliament rules on so-called “devolved matters,” such as housing, agriculture and health, while Westminster rules on things like immigration, defence and foreign policy. Authorities in London hoped that the arrangement would stymie calls for full-blown independence.

All the while, mainstream parties were shedding support. Under Thatcher—with her industry privatizations and no-holds-barred fight against the trade unions—Conservative support in Scotland tumbled. Between 1979 and 1981, Scotland lost 20 per cent of its workforce. Many Scots believed that Thatcher had it out for them. The feeling endured. Today, Scotland is ruled by the Tory government in London, but just one of Scotland’s 59 MPs is a Conservative. In July, The Economist wrote of Scotland’s enduring “Marxist caricature of the British state,” rooted in a “myth of vituperative, job-destroying, Scots-hating Tories.”

Not surprisingly, the SNP leans heavily left—and so too does the Yes campaign. Yes promises that Scotland’s National Health Service (NHS) will remain wholly in state hands—rather than fall to partial privatization, as it has in England. It also promises fewer foreign wars, more porous borders and zero nukes. (Salmond has promised to remove Britain’s supply of Trident nuclear weapons, which is currently held at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, in Faslane.)

Last November, Yes Scotland released a 667-page white paper, Scotland’s Future. Its crux: that Scotland, subsumed within the kingdom, suffers from a “democratic deficit”—and that the nation would be more democratic on its own. (The No side counters that Scotland sends a disproportionately large number of MPs to Westminster.) A second broad claim is that an independent Scotland would be more equal than the U.K. Public spending in Scotland is already more than 10 per cent higher per capita than the U.K. average. University tuition is free in Scotland. So are prescription drugs. The state also pays more into services such as senior care. Yes Scotland warns that these services are just one budget-slashing Englishman away from destruction.

The clincher, says the Yes campaign, is its claim that Scotland would actually be richer after independence. The SNP says Scotland is entitled, by virtue of geography, to some 90 per cent of the North Sea’s oil and gas reserves. Alex Salmond, a former oil economist, predicts that the nation’s oil revenues could reach $12.7 billion by 2018. (These figures are broadly disputed.) In Salmond’s vision, independent Scotland would be reconstituted as a kind of Norway: a big taxing and big spending state, floating by on an oil slick.

Young Scots have responded well to the Yes message: an important turn, since the voting age for the referendum has been lowered to 16. On a recent Sunday evening, Graeme Sneddon—a coordinator for Generation Yes, a pro-independence youth group—sips a pint of cider at a pub near the University of Glasgow, where he is a graduate student. Dressed in a loose grey suit jacket with Yes buttons on each lapel, he speaks of the tendency for 18- to 24-year-olds to back independence (by 58 per cent, according to a 2013 Ipsos MORI poll). Scotland has “difficulty keeping young talent” from “the suction machine that is the city of London,” he rues. And Scotland’s youth is often “disengaged” from Scottish politics. But independence has inspired a political coming-of-age. A number of young Scots have risen to celebrity status through their involvement with Yes—such as Zara Gladman (a.k.a. Lady Alba), a Ph.D. in ecology who is best-known for her remix of Lady Gaga, in which Scotland and England are caught in a Bad Romance.

Still, the heart of the pro-independence movement is the working-class Scot, who, according to numerous polls, is more likely to vote Yes than his middle-class counterpart. Greer, the Yes Scotland campaign coordinator, says Yes “absolutely needs to win the vote [in] working-class areas, places with high levels of poverty and deprivation [and] low voter turnout.” On a recent Monday, Yes support is riding high at the Arlington Bar, a crusty pub in Glasgow’s west end. In one corner, three gentlemen sit around a table, enjoying their regular monthly catch-up. “I’m not a great SNP fan. I voted Labour most of my life. But I don’t believe that the Labour Party is socialist anymore,” explains Andy Callahan. “I want a government I voted for, answerable to me.”

The pro-unionists have spent three years on a somewhat less glamorous fight to keep the U.K. united. At times, No has been a tough PR sell. Better Together was selected as a campaign title because it sounded more positive than No. But it lacked clarity. The campaign later adopted the tagline “No thanks”—reportedly inspired by the 1980 Quebec referendum’s “Non, merci” slogan. Nevertheless, No is often accused of running a negative campaign, taking what Alex Salmond says, and then saying, “It ain’t so.”

No campaigners are most successful in their attacks on Yes’s economic platform, and particularly its claims about North Sea oil. In July, the U.K.’s Office for Budget Responsibility downgraded its long-term (2020 to 2041) projections for North Sea oil tax income by a quarter, to $73 billion, prompting U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to warn that the SNP is “in denial” about the financial viability of an independent Scotland. The No side says Salmond has overstated both the quantity and future price of Scottish oil—and that oil markets are too volatile to anchor an economy. North Sea oil and gas production is already in decline (along with tax revenue), and many doubt that Scotland could attract the kind of investment needed to boost exploration. (Yes counters that Britain has mismanaged North Sea wealth: namely, by not establishing an oil fund to protect the country from revenue fluctuations.)

Each cheery projection from Yes—regarding, say, the amount of debt that an independent Scotland would inherit, or the possibility of retaining an open border between England and an independent Scotland—is subject to a quick and sharp refutation by No. Better Together insists that Scotland’s financial sector would flee Edinburgh in the event of a Yes vote, and that independent Scotland would be vulnerable to financial shock. A popular campaign anecdote reminds Scots that without a $84-billion bailout from the United Kingdom in 2008-09, the Royal Bank of Scotland would have collapsed.

It’s not surprising that much of big business has aligned itself with No. Over a coffee at a Starbucks in central Glasgow, James Reekie, vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, scoffed at the SNP’s plan to “take what is business’s biggest market and make it business’s biggest competitor.” In 2012, Scotland sold $88 billion worth of goods and services to the rest of the country; according to the Scotland Office (the U.K. government department that oversees Scottish affairs), that amounts to “double Scottish exports to the rest of the world combined.” Business owners worry they will lose customers with independence, or incur extra costs to operate in two markets. In July, the makers of Glenfiddich malt whisky donated $183,000 to Better Together.

A particularly contentious issue is currency. Yes insists that an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound. But Westminster dismisses such a currency union. “The pound isn’t an asset to be divided up between two countries after a breakup, like a CD collection,” Chancellor Osborne recently charged. Technically speaking, Scotland could continue to use the pound without London’s permission (much as Ecuador and Panama use the U.S. dollar)—and, indeed, Salmond said in early August, “There is literally nothing anyone can do to stop an independent Scotland using [pound] sterling.” But this strategy would leave it without a central bank and a lender of last resort. Salmond was widely criticized following a televised debate this month with Better Together leader Alistair Darling when he couldn’t offer a “Plan B” to this currency dilemma.

What about the euro? This, too, is disputable. Nobody knows whether Scotland would retain its membership in the EU. No says it wouldn’t, as does the president of the European Commission, who, in February, described the possibility of automatic, fast-tracked membership as “extremely difficult, if not impossible.” At the very least, every existing EU member would have to agree to an internal enlargement, and universal support is not guaranteed. Some analysts predict that Spain would vote against Scottish membership in order to deter Catalan nationalists from voting to separate in their own November 2014 referendum.

Recent months have also brought new attention to issues of national defence. The Scotland Office emphasizes that the U.K.’s current annual defence budget, at $61 billion, is one of the highest in the world—and that without it, Scotland would find its military defences and intelligence capabilities weakened. Last year, Conservative MP Andrew Murrison, a former Navy surgeon-commander, mocked Yes Scotland’s plan to build an entirely new defence force on a budget of just $4.6 billion (the figure cited by Yes officials). A government memo also warns that Scots currently serving in the regular U.K. armed forces “may not wish to leave to join much smaller forces.” Outside of Scotland, the SNP’s pledge to expel Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines (currently held at the Faslane Naval Base, near Glasgow) has earned much ire. Former British prime minister Sir John Major claims that Britain’s nuclear capacity would be “effectively wrecked” by the move, since it would take “many, many years” to find a strategically adequate replacement port. “That affects every European country and NATO,” he added.

Of all the No-backing parties, Labour likely has most to lose on Sept. 18. The party won 41 of Scotland’s 59 MP posts in the 2010 election—meaning that almost 20 per cent of Labour’s Westminster seats come from Scotland. (Tories in London joke that a Yes vote would have its upside: a Conservative majority government forever more.) For its part, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is keen to use the independence referendum (or “Indyref”) as a point of reinvention. Party vice-chair James Reekie says a lot of young Conservatives have become involved through the referendum campaign: many of them, “teenagers who don’t remember the Thatcher years.”

For these historically unburdened Scots, No’s relentless focus on all things economic will likely hold great sway. According to a popular ScotCen study, released in January, Scottish voters are likely to pick whichever side would make them £500/year ($917) richer. Freedom, it turns out, might have a rather affordable buy-out price.

What the referendum is not about, Yes representatives repeat at great length, is anti-English sentiment. Today, Yes campaigners take pains to express their affection for Merry England. The campaign’s white paper goes as far as to reassure Scots that, after independence, they will still get their BBC broadcasts, with “programming like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing.” And though SNP supporters once enthusiastically endorsed Braveheart (Mel Gibson’s 1995 film about the Scottish Wars of Independence), talk of the battle epic is now practically verboten. “Every time a journalist brings up Braveheart—the minute they bring it up—I know they have no idea what’s going on,” Angus Robertson, the Scottish MP and Yes campaigner, told Maclean’s.

For some Scots, however, this is indeed a fight that was hundreds of years in the making. In their view, the Yes campaigners of today are heirs to a pledge made in 1320, by a group of Scottish patriots in an open letter to the Pope: “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom.” (Braveheart fans may be more familiar with Gibson’s line: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”)

But not everyone is keen on historical analogy. “I sometimes think we’ve got to put historical events into perspective,” sighs Anne McGuire, a Labour MP who represents Stirling, where those long-ago battles were waged. “We can overemphasize the importance of these medieval struggles. Young people nowadays see themselves as global citizens. They think nothing of going to Manchester for a concert, or Newcastle for the weekend. They don’t see England as enemy territory. They don’t feel like they live in an occupied country.”

In fact, Scottish voters seem to be feeling far less than one might expect. The Scottish referendum is different from other, ongoing separatist campaigns: in Catalonia or Kurdistan or east Ukraine. In Scotland, the lines dividing each side are invisible to the naked eye: not ethnic nor linguistic nor religious—nor based on trauma endured within living history. Opinions are informed by an all-consuming two-year campaign whose many lessons would be hard to avoid. In the end, Yes and No diverge far more on the cool grounds of economics than on ancient, heated memories of Bannockburn.

The Sept. 18 ballot will offer Scots an in-or-out vote on the United Kingdom. But there is, going forward, a possibility of a third way: “devo-max,” or, maximum devolution, whereby Scotland would remain in the U.K. but acquire more power—for instance, in the areas of foreign affairs and defence. Experts predict devo-max as the likely result of a slim No victory.

When the campaign began, unionists brushed off talk of this middle ground, but in the last few months, every major party has reversed course and released proposals for how further devolution could be achieved. “Something fundamental has changed in the choice since I launched our campaign two years ago,” said Darling, the head of Better Together, in June. “At that time, some of those who were still undecided saw the referendum as a choice between change and the status quo. Now the terms of trade have changed.” Even if the union is maintained, it will be a changed alliance.

But back in Bathgate, campaigners didn’t get into the details of this likely third option. Instead, they approached doorsteps with rain-splattered clipboards and politely asked homeowners to rate themselves on a scale of one to 10, with one being “completely against” and 10 being “completely for an independent Scotland.” At one door, a young man told Audra McKee that he and his father are both 10s—but that it took them some time to come around. When the rain became too much to bear, the group disbanded. They shook off their slippery Yes raincoats and made hurried plans to meet down the road, for fish and chips: that great staple of united British cuisine.

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