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.”
Along with singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, Greig is the prime mover behind the Imagine Scotland Cafe. In Inverkeithing he tells the room, “We are the experts in our own lives,” suggesting that they “begin by asking questions about why things are the way they are.”
“If we start by asking whether we’ll be £50 better or worse off after independence, then we’ll create a country that’s about being £50 better off,” he says. Instead, the people there discuss wanting a country that relies less on coal and oil for energy (Scotland already generates half of Britain’s wind power), offers its children good jobs as well as a good education, ditches the Trident nuclear missile system and keeps the National Health Service (NHS) publicly owned.
When Tony Blair offered Scotland devolution in 1997, the aim was to make outright independence unnecessary. “Devolution has allowed us to protect the NHS in Scotland while it’s been privatized one piece at a time in the south,” a woman says. In Scotland, I am reminded, personal care for the elderly is free—as are Scottish universities. Labour leader Ed Miliband might promise to abolish the bedroom tax—the hated Tory policy of cutting housing benefits to tenants deemed to have “spare” room—but in Scotland it never took effect.
The 1707 Act of Union made Scotland part of Great Britain; for the next three centuries, independence remained a lost cause. Indeed, the defeated American Confederacy borrowed its own “lost cause” mythology from Walter Scott’s romantic tales of chivalry. In eighteenth-century Scotland, the Jacobite supporters of the deposed Catholic Stuarts—mainly in the Highlands, along with a few wealthy Anglican or Catholic families on the borders—twice failed to rally their devoutly Presbyterian Lowlands countrymen, and by the nineteenth century Scots of all persuasions were among the most ardent enlistees in the British Empire. Glasgow built the ships, Edinburgh banked the money and the Highland clearances—which pushed huge numbers off the land to be replaced by sheep or deer—furnished the manpower.
Even today “you can never ignore the sectarian element in Scottish politics,” says my friend Ajay Close. A Sheffield, England–born novelist who calls herself “Scottish by formation,” Close, like all immigrants, regardless of when they arrived, has a vote in the referendum. Scots who live in England—and who might be more sympathetic to remaining in the Union—do not. Though that has caused some resentment abroad, the idea of nonethnic nationalism—of a Scotland that belongs to whoever chooses to live there—is widely popular. Still, supporters of the Rangers (the Glasgow soccer team traditionally associated with the city’s Protestant elite) remain more likely to vote No, while fans of Celtic, with its base in the Irish immigrant community, lean toward Yes.
“It was only after the Union that the Highlands and Lowlands came together,” says Neil Davidson, author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood. “These were distinct societies, based on two different modes of production.” The destruction of feudal society in the Highlands allowed Scotland to become a modern capitalist economy, a launch pad for the Industrial Revolution. With its shipyards and factories, Glasgow soon surpassed Edinburgh to become one of the largest cities in the world—and a hotbed of radicalism known in the 1920s as “Red Clydeside.”
But the end of empire meant goodbye to all that. Glasgow’s population peaked in 1939. From the 1950s through the 1970s, block after block of the city was demolished to try to stop the blight, and though recent years have seen considerable cultural regeneration, Glaswegians still have the shortest life expectancy in the United Kingdom.
Mike Haggerty is a Glasgow native, an official of the World Curling Association, a man who can still remember “when Celtic supporters had their throats cut”—and when the Scottish National Party were a small band of eccentrics derided as “Tartan Tories.” What changed things? Margaret Thatcher. “She made the Tories toxic in Scotland,” says Haggerty. Thatcher’s assault on the welfare state gave Labour a near monopoly on Scottish seats in Westminster, while lending Scottish nationalism a new—and much wider—appeal.
“The Labour Party still win UK elections here,” says Michael Keating, who teaches Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen. “But since Tony Blair, the party has been hollowed out. Their voters have a tribal loyalty, but that may not last much longer.”
Talk with Yes voters and you hear two stories. One is about political divergence. “While we were electing fewer and fewer Tories, they were electing more and more,” the writer and activist Ellen Galford told me. “Then in 1997, when Labour finally got in, we got Blair,” whose neoliberal project left plenty of room on the left—which in Scotland was promptly occupied by the SNP.
The other story, says Galford, is about “the chance to see something being made new without blood running down the streets.”
“I’ve never been involved in politics,” says Haggerty, adding, “Though I’m still undecided, I’m minded to vote Yes.” Asked why, his first response is “thrawn“—a Scottish word my dictionary says means “perverse” or “crooked,” but which he uses to signify a kind of quiet pride. “It isn’t outward. It isn’t belligerent,” he says.
The No campaign’s scaremongering may also have been a factor. “They were even saying we’ll have to pay roaming charges on our mobile phones,” says Haggerty, who described his vote as a choice between hope and “feart.”
Which is just how Alex Salmond wants it. For all his faults—a slippery manner, a famous temper and a weird bromance with Rupert Murdoch—Salmond is the most talented British politician of his generation. It was the SNP’s surprise victory in 2011 that triggered the current referendum. Salmond then bounced David Cameron into agreeing to a vote in the same year Scotland celebrates the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, when Robert the Bruce led a small Scottish army to victory over the British. Imagine Abraham Lincoln telling Jefferson Davis that the South—and only the South—can vote on whether to leave the Union.
That doesn’t mean the referendum will pass. Right now the smart money says it won’t, and if you talk to No voters you hear a catalog of worries, ranging from “What will we do when the oil runs out?” to “How will we manage without the pound?” Salmond promises that they won’t have to—and can keep the queen and NATO as well—but it isn’t only Better Together who find his answers unsatisfactory. The Radical Independence Campaign, a left-green alliance, argues that Salmond’s attempt to square the circle of lower corporate taxes and higher public spending is far too cautious. Their slogan: “Another Scotland is possible.”
Though the No campaign remains ahead as we go to press, I can’t help recalling that it was the Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney who coined the phrase about “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
As a British citizen and a Labour Party member, I’d hate to see Scotland go. The short-term effect on British politics is uncertain: without Scotland’s forty-one Labour MPs, the Tories would have an outright majority, but if Scotland departs on his watch, Cameron is unlikely to survive as prime minister. However, the loss of Scotland would also remove a significant counterweight to the xenophobic “Little England” nationalism behind the UK Independence Party, making a British exit from Europe more likely.
What remains—“rUK,” as they already call it in the Scottish papers, with the “r” standing for either “rest of” or “rump”—would be in every way a lesser country. And though the Scots seem committed to an inclusive, open vision of nationalism—a nationalism without blood—it would be nice to think that other forms of solidarity, whether based on class unity or shared history, were just as important.
But if I were Scottish, I can’t imagine not voting for independence. Not just for the chance to scrap Trident—an early, and hugely popular, SNP promise. And not just for the chance to build a Norwegian-style petro welfare state. Spend more than a few days in Scotland and you quickly realize that the country already has its own culture. Does it need its own government as well? Novelist William McIlvanney—Hugh’s brother—once said the Scots were like refugees in “our own country. We are almost seven hundred years old, and we are still wondering what we will be when we grow up.” They may be about to find out.