Inverkeithing is one of those places that make Scotland seem like a country with more history than future. First the coal mines shut down, then the paper mill, and finally the shipbreakers—the HMS Dreadnought and the ocean liner Britannic were both taken apart at the yard here. Mike Ryan’s father died in a mine cave-in; he’s seen his own employers sold twice. But what brings Ryan and about forty other men and women to the whitewashed crypt of a former Franciscan friary on a warm summer evening isn’t the past. This is an “Imagine Scotland Cafe”—aimed at persuading undecided voters to vote Yes in the September 18 referendum.
The question on the ballot is simple—and binding: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” For most Scots, the answer is simple, too. Polls show at least 40 percent on either side, with the Noes ahead—but the Yeses gaining. “England looks like a strange country,” says Lesley Riddoch, author of Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish. “That’s what you can’t see if you live in it.”
“If we split we’re no’ going to have an army, a navy or an air force—just a coast guard,” says the taxi driver who picks me up at Edinburgh’s Waverly Station. “You can only defend an island if we stick together.”
Anxiety about how Scotland would fare on its own is a common theme among No supporters—though more often expressed in terms of economics than national security. Would the Royal Bank of Scotland—which got a £46 billion bailout from the British taxpayer in 2008—have survived? Can a small country generate the jobs, and the exports, needed to prosper in the global economy?
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), argues that thanks to North Sea oil, “Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world, wealthier per head than France, the UK and Japan.” Speaking at a forum at Edinburgh University, Salmond’s biographer, David Torrance, dismissed such claims as “intellectually dishonest.”
Nor is Torrance sympathetic to the view that only the dead hand of London-centered rule keeps Scotland from becoming a Scandinavian-style social democracy. “All the tools required to decrease inequality—taxation, property tax, education, welfare provision—already exist,” says Torrance, pointing out that the Scottish Parliament currently controls spending on health and education, and that Labour and the Tories have both pledged greater devolution if the referendum fails.
For Better Together backers like novelist J.K. Rowling, independence is a risky distraction. “All the major political parties are currently wooing us with offers of extra powers,” said Rowling in June, announcing a £1 million donation to the No campaign. If Scotland leaves now, she warned, “we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours.”
Some of Rowling’s neighbors are already bitter at what they regard as cronyism at best—Rowling is a longtime friend of Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, who heads the Better Together campaign—an act of treason at worst. The ensuing wave of cyber-abuse fully justified the Harry Potter creator’s worry that things might “start getting a little Death Eaterish.”
But for anyone from outside Scotland, the independence debate has been remarkably civil. (Equally striking is the pronounced lack of interest south of the border. You might think the prospect of losing a third of your territory—and 8 percent of your population—would concentrate the mind. But there has been far more space in the British press devoted to the Ice Bucket Challenge than the Scottish referendum.) Playwright David Greig welcomed Rowling’s comments, describing them as “really thoughtful.”