KINLOCH RANNOCH, Scotland — The chieftain of the Rannoch Highland gathering was leaning on a traditional shepherds’ crook considering the prospect of an independent Scotland. Clad in a green-and-red kilt, with an eagle feather in his cap and a ceremonial dagger protruding from his right sock, Leo Barclay said the only certainty was that his country faced an historic crossroads.
On Thursday, Scots will go to the polls to decide if they should end their political union with the United Kingdom and become an entirely self-governing nation. It would be the first time Scotland has seized independence since the blood-soaked era of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce seven centuries ago.
As chieftain in the village of Kinloch Rannoch, which is in the geographical heart of Scotland, Barclay is responsible for overseeing the local gathering of the Highland Games. Exactly as they have done for hundreds of years, fleet-footed youngsters and mountainous men competed in dancing competitions and the tossing of the caber. This year’s gathering in the Perthshire Highlands was whipped by wind and dampened by rain but there was a healthy crowd, many of whom greeted Barclay warmly as “the Laird.”
Standing at the foot of Loch Rannoch, he contemplated the upcoming referendum which will grant every Scottish resident over the age of 16 the chance to vote “Yes” to an independent Scotland. The latest opinion polls suggest it will be agonizingly close. “My heart wants to vote yes,” Barclay said, shaking his head wistfully. “But I’m afraid I’m going to vote no.”
Despite a burning sense of Scottish pride, Barclay, 73, said he was worried about the economy. Most of the customers for his family business, which produces smoked meats in the village, are in affluent southern England. Many Scots feel their First Minister, Alex Salmond, the architect of the referendum, has failed to explain convincingly what would happen to business, currency and trade in an independent Scotland.
Gus Connolly, a broad middle-aged man with a thick red beard, was working at the Games dressed as a fearsome Scottish warrior. He was manning a stand that displayed replicas of swords dating back to the 1300s, when the English were last vanquished by the Scots.
This telecoms engineer may be a Scottish history buff who thinks London holds too much power over Scotland, but he isn’t convinced the 5 million-strong country can thrive without the support of the rest of the U.K.
Scotland has had its own parliament since 1999, which allows it control over health, education, and justice but not fiscal and monetary policy, or defense or foreign policy. Connolly certainly isn’t buying the pro-independence argument that Scotland would emulate its booming Scandinavian neighbors if it was given total control over its destiny. “Alex Salmond has been watching too much Braveheart,” he said. “All this talk of us being the new Norway is all very well, but 25 percent of Norwegians aren’t Buckfast-drinking jakeys.”
For those unfamiliar with the local tongue, he was suggesting that Scotland has a larger than average street-drinking fraternity, many of whom are partial to the notoriously strong fortified wine.
The “Yes” campaign says this sense of pessimism found even in the patriotic Highlands is unfounded and has been stoked by opponents who are desperate to bully and scare the Scots into submission. They claim London-based politicians like British Prime Minister David Cameron have deliberately undermined Scottish confidence in order to safeguard the status quo. Worse than that, they accuse Cameron of using Britain’s global embassy network to cajole governments around the world into telling Scotland they won’t be able to stand on their own two feet.
A hundred miles south of Loch Rannoch, Bruce Fummey, a stand-up comedian and independence campaigner, has been doing his bit for the cause at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. During his show, “Aaah’m Votin’ Yes,” he says he cannot believe the British prime minister had succeeded in finally getting the Chinese and the Americans to agree on something. Both President Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang publicly spoke in favor of keeping the United Kingdom intact after meetings with Cameron in Europe.
“Barack Obama coming over here and telling us they can have independence from London, but we can’ t,” said Fummey. “Well, nobody in Scotland gives a fuck what Barack Obama thinks about independence. What does Groundskeeper Willie think about independence in Scotland?”
Groundskeeper Willie, from The Simpsons, won’t get a vote on Sept. 18, and neither will millions of Scottish nationals scattered all over the world, not even the huge number living in the rest of the U.K., but all residents of Scotland 16 and older are entitled to vote, no matter where they were born. Both sides are expecting a record turnout, possibly as high as 80 percent, so many will be engaging in the democratic process in Scotland for the first time. That makes voter registration and door-to-door campaigning more important than ever.
As the rain cleared from a heavy summer downpour in Granton, a run-down suburb north of Edinburgh’s city center, Olive Morrison, 84, strode out on another evening of door knocks. She had lost count of how many nights of campaigning she has undertaken but she is determined to do whatever she can to secure an independent Scotland.
One of her motivations is a deep distrust of the government seated 400 miles south in Westminster. “They have no idea about the real world,” she said. “How many of the Cabinet went to Eton?” Cameron is the 19th British prime minister to have attended the elite boarding school on the banks of the River Thames. Princes William and Harry were among the more recent students. Needless to say fewer Scottish politicians were educated in such a cosseted environment. “With a name like David William Donald Cameron you can tell he’s a Scot,” Morrison said. “He’s a traitor.”
Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition government have often been held up, along with the right-wing Margaret Thatcher governments, as reasons to vote for Scottish independence. There is currently only one Conservative MP in London elected by voters in Scotland, which has an overwhelmingly center-left political tradition. In fact, since the Second World War, Scottish voters have tipped the balance in a British election only once. For the most part, their votes don’t really count in British general elections.
And yet, as we knocked on the doors in the public housing projects, big picture political ideology was never mentioned. Nor was national pride, or Scottishness. People wanted to know what would happen to them if Scotland went independent. Would it change the cost of their education? Would it affect their care in the National Health Service?
Over the course of two televised debates between Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is leading the no campaign, these pocketbook issues have been hammered furiously by both sides. The “Yes” campaign commissioned an economic report that found Scots would be $1,600 better off per year in an independent Scotland, while the “Better Together” campaign’s equally hefty tome found that each person would be $2,300 a year richer if the union remains. The upshot of these contradictory findings is that most people have trouble believing the figures produced by either side.
On the currency question, however, there has been a clear winner. The leaders of all three Westminster parties announced in a coordinated statement that the U.K. would not enter into a currency union with Scotland if there was a vote for independence. Salmond’s main response has simply been to say that they are bluffing.
Pressed for weeks to outline his Plan B if there was to be no currency union, Salmond has hinted that Scotland would simply continue to use the pound anyway—just as Panama uses the U.S. dollar. Implications for the Scottish banking system, which would have no lender of last resort, and an inability to set interest rates within Scotland, has made this a deeply unsatisfactory solution.
For Aga Malarczyk, 37, one of more than 50,000 Polish citizens living in Scotland, this is a deal breaker. Standing in her driveway in Granton with toddler Alex on her hip (“He is a Scottish baby!”), Malarczyk explained that she was still undecided but she was not impressed with the SNP’s economic plan. “I’m worried about the money, about the economy. On the debate, 100 percent, Salmond didn’t have the answers,” she said, stressing a hard “w” in the word “answers.”
Morrison handed her a “Yes” campaign leaflet printed in Polish. She said someone had already given her the literature in her native language, but Morrison was confident. “She’s going to vote yes,” she said. Perhaps.
Back in the Old Town, Marco Biagi, the SNP representative for Edinburgh Central, sat down in a modernist glass-walled office inside the controversial Scottish Parliament building, which opened a decade ago almost 10 times over the original budget. “People still haven’t forgiven the cost,” he conceded, but the “Yes” camp hope that Scotland’s relatively smooth progress since devolution will have encouraged people to believe they are ready to go it alone. The polls suggested for two years that Scotland would reject the chance of independence, but that lead has evaporated in the last month. “No” leads 52 percent to 48 percent in three of the most recent polls, but a large proportion of the public still say they are undecided on the eve of the vote.
Biagi has been campaigning for an independent Scotland since he was 16, and he knows this may be his only chance to create history. “The U.S. celebrates the day it became independent every year with fireworks rather than sorrow,” he said. “Fortunately, we can do it without any revolutionary wars.”
After 80 years of the SNP fighting for independence, their moment has finally arrived. “If there is a no vote everybody in the SNP’s belief that an independent Scotland is the best solution for Scotland will continue. But, can that question be asked again? Not in a generation,” he said.
He admitted that repeated questions about the currency and the economy had rattled voters. “The ‘no’ campaign have been doing everything they can to worry people,” he said.
At the end of his bombastic “Aaah’m Votin’ Yes” performance, Fummey explained over a pint of Guinness that he was terrified about waking up on Friday to discover that Scotland had got cold feet. “Oh, God. It would be shameful,” he said. “It would be saying we’re not good enough—we've been told that for years. It’s now part of the Scottish psyche.”
On stage he had described what he saw as a scare campaign orchestrated from London. “It turns out Scotland is uniquely incapable of doing all the things that other countries can. They just want to scare you into shitting yourself, into voting no. You don’t have to shit yourself and vote no. You know why? Because Imodium prescriptions will be free in an independent Scotland,” he joked.
With both sides making rival claims about the financial health of Scotland, Fummey could not understand why the majority of Scottish people would be willing to sacrifice their right to self-determination in exchange for the possibility of a few hundred pounds a year. After all, he said, people all over the world had spilled blood in the name of freedom and independence from the British.
I put Fummey’s perspective to David Whitton, a former Labour MSP, now working for the Better Together campaign at their headquarters above the busy Sauchiehall shopping street in Glasgow. “I don’t understand what on Earth he’s talking about,” he replied. “Scotland’s never been oppressed by England in the way he seems to think. In fact, if you go back far enough in history you’ll find it was probably Scottish regiments and Scottish adventurers that were leading the way as Great Britain was building its empire.”
Whitton said he could see no reason to cast aside a shared heritage that stretches back through two world wars and the building of an empire that once encircled the globe. “It’s a referendum on whether Scotland should break away from one of the most successful unions the world has ever seen. We’ve been a united kingdom for over 300 years. If we break away from that—that’s it. It’s a once-in-forever decision,” he said.
As time runs out and tempers are frayed, the energized but hitherto peaceful independence campaign is showing signs of increased tension. Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy suspended his speaking tour this week after he was egged by what he described as “sinister” mobs of “Yes” campaigners who shouted him down at every one of his engagements. “No” campaigners and journalists have reported bullying and intimidation.
Fummey wouldn’t throw an egg at anybody but he is going to be devastated if Scotland backs away from independence. “Scottish people see themselves as a proud fighting nation,” he said. “But if we vote no, we’re going to have to abandon the national anthem. How could we sing it anymore?”
O flower of Scotland
When will we see your like again …
we can still rise now
And be the nation again.