Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Scots rally ahead of independence referendum

Scotland’s Alex Salmond (L) and Alistair Darling (R) engage in a TV debate over independence [Getty Images]
Coatbridge, Scotland – “Independence is forever. You can’t take it back if you don’t like it,” the lean, wiry-framed Jim Murphy proclaims on Main Street.

About 60 people are congregated in a semi-circle in front of the Labour MP, who stands perched on a pair of upturned crates of Irn Bru, Scotland’s favourite fizzy drink. A man wearing a bright blue “No Thanks” badge claps loudly; towards the back of the crowd, a couple of teenagers shout “Vote Yes”.

A once prosperous industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow, Coatbridge is destination 51 of Murphy’s whistle-stop, 100-date tour of Scotland ahead of the referendum on independence next month.

“My message is that Scotland can be stronger, more prosperous, more influential if we stay part of the United Kingdom. We can have the best of both worlds,” says Murphy, MP for nearby East Renfrewshire and former secretary of state for Scotland.

So far, Scots appear to be heeding “No” campaigners’ warnings. Amid uncertainties about what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether the new state would automatically become a member of the European Union, most polls have registered a significant lead for those wishing to keep the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England.

There are no guarantees that we are going to end up with a fairer Scotland with independence, but there is a better chance of it.

– Feargal Dalton, Scottish National Party councillor


But the Yes campaign’s message that Scotland would be better off in control of its own affairs has caught the imagination of many, particularly in places such as Coatbridge, where incomes are low and job opportunities scarce in the low-rise 1960s-era Main Street. Polls suggest Scots in working class communities are far more likely to support independence than their more affluent compatriots.

“I was a no originally but the more I’ve heard, it’s yes,” says Brian Boyle, a 22-year-old who had come to listen to Jim Murphy’s entreaty. “I’ve not been persuaded at all by the no campaign, they’ve just been too negative.”

Ready to vote

With less than a month to go, the battle for the future for Scotland is increasingly being played out on the street. Not with bricks or guns, but with clipboards and pens. Both campaigns have thousands of volunteers and paid staff knocking on doors and holding rallies across the country, hoping to convince voters of the power of their arguments before polling day on September 18.

Both sides of the independence debate are fluttering in the breeze on Alderman Road, northwest Glasgow. A red, white and blue union flag flies in the garden of a semi-detached house. Across the street, the words “Saor Alba Gu Brath”  (Free Scotland Forever) are emblazoned across a huge Scottish saltire. Solid grey tower blocks dominate the skyline.

“Something needs to change in this society and independence offers the opportunity for that,” says Margaret Malcolm, convener of the local branch of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has a majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament, during an evening canvas of undecided voters. It is cold and windy, and only two of the six houses called on have anyone at home. And neither is backing independence.

Malcolm, a petite, retired psychiatrist who joined the SNP five years, is undeterred. “If we vote no it won’t be because I haven’t done my level best to make it happen.” A little further along the street, a pebble-dashed house has Vote No posters in Labour red in the front window. “They weren’t there last week,” says Malcolm.

Nearby, postman Darren Brander, 32, says he is voting yes for his two young children. “The way things are now, there’s no chance of them getting a house, no chance of getting a job.”

‘No guarantees’

A sign urges voters to give a Yes vote for a separate nation for Scotland [Getty Images]

For local SNP councillor Feargal Dalton independence is about giving Scotland the power to tackle social exclusion and injustice.

“There are no guarantees that we are going to end up with a fairer Scotland with independence, but there is a better chance of it,” says Dalton. “A small democracy and a more democratic system is more responsive to the needs of citizens, particularly those who are more vulnerable.”

One of the main arguments advanced by nationalists is that Scotland consistently votes for centre-left parties but often – as currently – is ruled by the Conservatives in Westminster, who draw much of their support from southern England.

On Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow, shoppers are not so sure about the prospects of independence. “I’m for a no, a definite no. There’s enough trouble in the world without creating more division,” says James Lawn, a Glaswegian pensioner.

Everyone on either side now accepts that Scotland is a viable country and could survive on its own. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

– David Torrance, political commentator


Outside a department store, a large group of anti-independence campaigners have gathered for a photo-call. Most carry blue No Thanks balloons and miniature saltire flags. Two big blue letters “N” and “O” are silhouetted against a banner for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that ended last month.

Among the flag-wavers is 18-year-old Paddy O’Duffin. “I don’t think we face a certain future if there is a yes vote. I don’t want my mum called a foreigner if there is a yes vote,” says O’Duffin, who is due to begin studying international relations in Edinburgh next month. At the recent European elections in May he voted for the independence party UKIP. “I believe that power should be returned to us from Brussels.”

Polls suggest no campaigners are likely to be the ones celebrating on September 19, but with four weeks to go there is still room for an upset. “We are in the key period now. In the next few weeks is when people actually make up their minds,” says journalist and political commentator David Torrance.

Viable country

On Monday, SNP leader Alex Salmond will face off against former UK chancellor Alistair Darling in the second, and final, televised debate.

Even if it is a no vote, nationalists have won the argument about whether Scotland could be an independent state. “Everyone on either side now accepts that Scotland is a viable country and could survive on its own. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago,” says Torrance.

Independence has divided Scotland. But whether Scots say “aye” or “naw”, the constitutional battle will be won by words and arguments alone. In a world where states are often borne out of violence and chauvinism, such civility should be heralded as a victory for everyone.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Scots rally ahead of independence referendum
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