In Scotland, ‘no’ means ‘yes’

GLASGOW — At 6:30 a.m. on September 19 last year, Natalie McGarry sat alone on the pavement outside the glass-fronted Emirates Arena in this city’s East End. Inside, the counting of votes in Scotland’s independence referendum had ended a couple of hours earlier — Yes had won Glasgow but lost overall, by just over 10 points. Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom.

“I was the last person left in a very sad and lonely Emirates,” recalls McGarry, who spent months campaigning with Yes Scotland in the run-up to last year’s ballot. “I was devastated.”

McGarry’s despondency did not last long, however.

A few days after the vote, the then-33-year-old policy advisor was due to speak in Brussels, at a meeting of stateless nations from around the world. As she prepared her speech, the big story in Scotland moved from the 55/45 referendum result to the tens of thousands joining the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

“I had prepared to talk about this heartbreaking loss but instead I was talking about this huge new engagement in politics,” says McGarry.

* * *

A year on from the independence referendum, Scotland and its politics has “changed, changed utterly” — as former SNP leader Alex Salmond, paraphrasing W.B. Yeats, remarked in his resignation speech last year.

On September 18, 2014, the SNP’s rolls numbered just more than 25,000. Today the nationalists have more than 110,000 members — and, in May, increased their representation at Westminster from just six seats to 56, winning all but three Scottish constituencies.

“The political landscape across Scotland has changed completely,” says McGarry, who is now the SNP MP for Glasgow East, overturning a Labour majority of more than 10,000 to win with a swing of more than 32 percent on a greatly increased turnout, a post-referendum trend repeated across Scotland.

In May’s general election, the SNP managed to attract the support of the vast majority of the 1.6 million Yes votes, including many in traditional working class areas disillusioned at the inability of Labour governments to solve the problems that plague much of post-industrial Scotland. Polls put the nationalists on course to win an unprecedented third consecutive term in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh next year.

“It is now self-evident to most Scots that decision-making should happen — on most issues — in Holyrood not in Westminster,” says Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter.

Although Scots voted No, the referendum hastened the unraveling of the Act of Union that joined Scotland and England in 1707, says Macwhirther.

“The independence referendum of 2014 was the most transformative political moment in Scotland in 300 years. It marked the beginning of the end of the Union of 1707, the consolidation of a distinct Scottish political culture, the end of Labour’s political dominance of Scotland.”

* * *

Alex Salmond previously declared last year’s vote a “once in a generation” opportunity. But, in the febrile arena of Scottish politics, a generation could prove as short as a few years.

Calls for another referendum are growing. Thousands of Scottish nationalists are due to rally in Glasgow this weekend.

Amid polls showing support for independence gaining strength, Scottish First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure to include a commitment to a second referendum on the party’s manifesto for next year’s devolved elections.

A loose pledge on another vote is likely, but having built its success on a “gradualist” strategy, the SNP is unlikely to rush a second referendum. Sturgeon has said that a “material change” in Scotland’s constitutional position would trigger a ballot — if the U.K. votes to leave the European Union and Scots chose to remain, for example, or even the election of another Conservative government in 2020 with no mandate north of the border.

While British Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that he would not countenance another referendum, last year’s vote “will be the focal point of Scottish politics for the future and will continue to be until the next referendum,” says David Torrance, the biographer of both Salmond and Sturgeon.

Nationalists are highly unlikely to risk a second referendum until polls show a consistent support of at least 60 percent for leaving the U.K., but independence “is now the inescapable prism of politics” in Scotland says Torrance.

“Once things are framed in those terms [independence or the union], it is very hard to shift the focus back onto “normal” politics. That is reflected in the fact that the Scottish government doesn’t have that fantastic a record in areas like health and education but is wildly popular.

* * *

In 1995, then Labour Shadow Secretary for Scotland George Robertson predicted that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.” Two years later, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh — but far from ending demands for independence, the clamor to leave the United Kingdom has grown stronger in the almost two decades since.

Westminster has struggled to accommodate growing demands for Scottish self-determination. The cross-party pro-U.K. campaign during the independence referendum — so negative that it was nicknamed “Project Fear” — began with a commanding 40-point lead and ended up relying on last minute promises of fresh powers for the Scottish Parliament to secure victory.

The Smith Commission, established in the wake of last September’s vote, recommended more devolution, but for many nationalists the new levers proposed do not go far enough. Meanwhile, Conservative plans to introduce specific voting rights for English MPs in Westminster have drawn the SNP’s ire.

Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University and a Conservative candidate in next year’s Scottish elections, says that “the union isn’t going away anytime soon” but unionists need to make more of the benefits of the three centuries-old relationship between Scotland and England.

“People need to know what the union does for them. The union feels very abstract; it feels very distant from the life of, say, a working class man in Glasgow.”

Tomkins’ solution is two-fold: to nurture common cultural bounds across the border through proposals such as twinning pupils in English and Scottish schools; and to build an “architecture of shared rule” that would give Scots greater representation in the institutions of Whitehall and the British state.

“The ingredients that held the union in the 20th century are not going to be the ones that held the union together in the 21st century,” says Tomkins. “But some kind of replacement glue is going to be needed.”

* * *

Despite the SNP surge, victory for nationalists in a second referendum is not a given. The economic and political uncertainties that contributed so much to the Yes side’s defeat — particularly over what currency an independent Scotland would use — are no closer to conclusive answers.

Political developments elsewhere in Britain might also change the dynamic in Scotland. The SNP’s social democratic rhetoric has played well at the ballot box, but with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Scottish nationalists could face a threat from the left.

“Corbyn is a huge black swan that has sailed into the middle of the constitutional debate. Suddenly, the SNP cannot claim to be the sole inheritor of social democratic politics in Scotland,” says Macwhirter.

“The nationalists have done very well by adopting all the policies — like free tuition fees, council housing, prescription charges — that Labour abandoned under Blair. But now Corbyn is coming along and reappropriating them, which is a fascinating development.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Shame in the Shetlands

Shetlanders are fond of saying that their nearest train station is the Norwegian city of Bergen, such is the islands’ distance from the British mainland. Perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the wild, oil-rich North Sea, the U.K.’s most northerly archipelago has a very distinctive history and identity.

But windswept Shetland — population circa 25,000 — has not escaped the political gale that blew across Scotland and the rest of Britain in the wake of last year’s defeated independence referendum.

In May’s general election, Shetland and Orkney was one of only three Scottish constituencies not to return a Scottish National Party MP. Incumbent Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael held on, by less than a thousand votes, as the SNP took 56 seats across Scotland.

The former Scottish secretary’s political future — and the future of his party in their last Scottish redoubt — now hangs in the balance.

Carmichael is under investigation by Westminster’s parliamentary standards commissioner after he admitted to approving the leak of a Whitehall memo suggesting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told a French diplomat she would like to see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister ahead of the general election. He had previously denied any involvement.

Recently passed legislation that allows the recall of MPs is not yet in force, but, if the commissioner finds against him, Carmichael’s position could become politically untenable. At the same time, a separate public petition crowd-funded over £55,000 to launch a legal challenge against the Lib Dem’s election victory. An Edinburgh court is expected to hear the case in September. Either outcome could result in a by-election.

Such political skullduggery is almost unheard of in the Shetland Islands.

“It’s not a particularly political place. People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things,” says former BBC journalist Tom Morton over coffee in a busy café near the harbor at Lerwick, the Shetlands’ largest town.

Liberals have dominated Shetland politics for more than half a century. Jo Grimond, who first became MP in 1950, is still revered for brokering a deal with international oil companies in the early 1970s that saw the construction of a massive refinery at Sullom Voe under unusually favorable terms for the local community. Almost overnight, the impoverished fishing community was transformed into a prosperous mini-state with local control over its own oil fund.

“People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things” — Tom Morton, former BBC journalist.

But the Liberal Democrats hemorrhaged support in May, and the Carmichael affair has sparked indignation among many in Shetland. More than once I was told that the MP had “brought shame” on the islands — not by leaking the “Frenchgate” memo, but by lying about it.

“The ordinary Liberals feel betrayed by what he did because they trusted him,” says Shetlander Mary Blance.

Even Tavish Scott, the sitting Liberal Democrat member of the devolved Scottish parliament for Shetland, admits that voters feel let down. But Scottish nationalists went over the top in their campaign to oust the MP, he says, adding: “I think it will rebound on the SNP.”

Scott and his party hope so — Shetland is one of just two Lib Dem constituencies to have survived the SNP tsunami in the 2011 Scottish elections. Polls suggest the nationalists could win almost every seat in Scotland next year. With the Lib Dems currently polling in the low single digits, the party needs all the support it can muster.

* * *
On a blustery summer’s evening on Lerwick harbor, a brass band decked out in British Legion livery plays to a small crowd. The event commemorates more than 250 men who left the islands a century ago to fight in World War I. Many never returned.

As the band plays, a Shetland flag swirls in the breeze. The ubiquitous standard — the colors of the Scottish saltire in the form of a Nordic cross — reflects the islands’ own complex ties.

The islands were under Norwegian control for centuries. In 1468, the King of Denmark pawned Shetland, along with Orkney, to Scotland as part of a dowry for a royal marriage. The Danes never managed to repay the debt.

The Act of Union brought the Shetlands into the United Kingdom, but traces of the Viking heritage remain: St Magnus, St Olaf and King Harald are among the names of Lerwick’s pretty Victorian streets. Udal law, an ancient Norse legal system, still holds sway in the Shetlands’ courts. Solid Scandinavian-style timber houses are dotted across the islands.

With such a rich history, identity is a particularly thorny issue, says Shetlands-born writer Malachy Tallack.

“Most people would say they are Shetland first. Most people would say they are Scottish too, and probably British. There is no contradiction.”

Although a short-lived movement for greater autonomy emerged after the discovery of oil, the Shetlands have long been stony soil for Scottish nationalism. In 1979, the Shetlands voted against Scottish devolution. In the 2010 general election, the SNP finished a massive 41.4 percent behind the Lib Dems here.

But Shetlanders’ antipathy towards the nationalists seems to be softening.

Last September, the pro-independence vote was lower in Shetland than the national average but, at more than 36 percent, was still significant, says Tallack. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found 5 to 10 percent who would have voted yes.”

Since the referendum, the SNP’s membership in Shetland has risen more than five-fold.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room” — Ella Gordon, textile maker.
Often accused of centralizing power, the Scottish nationalist government in Edinburgh has set out a new agenda for the islands, promising more local powers and appointing Scotland’s first dedicated islands’ minister. This approach is proving popular in Shetland, says Mike MacKenzie, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands.

“In the past they have felt neglected by the Scottish government (and) by the SNP. That has changed,” says MacKenzie. “I’ve been warmly received. That’s partly the natural island hospitality but also we’ve been taking a pretty good message to the island.”

Shetland News journalist Neil Riddell agrees. “People always say, ‘We are as remote from Edinburgh as we are from London,’ but that isn’t strictly true. We have much more access to Scottish ministers. Before devolution there was just one U.K. minister for the whole of Scotland.”

Ostensibly Shetland has done well from the union. Oil has paid for a road network that is the envy of rural Scotland. Even small hamlets have heated swimming pools and leisure centers. Lerwick boasts both a state-of-the-art performance space and a museum that rivals those of many larger nations.

Meanwhile, a massive gas plant is being built at Sullom Voe. Many of the workers live in huge, static ocean-liners moored in Lerwick and Scalloway.

Some Shetlanders, however, question whether this so-called “second oil boom” is benefiting their community. Beyond the bar owners and the hoteliers, there is little sign of oil money trickling down. House prices have risen sharply, and a new generation of locals find themselves forced to leave.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room. A friend of mine was renting a one bedroom flat for £900 a month,” says Ella Gordon. The 24-year-old textile-maker lives with her parents.

Most of her friends now live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, hundreds of miles, and an expensive day’s journey, away. “Growing up in the 90s we had it so good. We could do anything we wanted. Now it’s like life is going backwards.”

Bob Gillespie, the SNP and Labour’s primal scream

It’s a bank holiday Monday afternoon in a Glasgow boozer. Busy tables are littered with discarded yellow raffle tickets and half-empty pints. On the small stage, a heavily pregnant woman belts out Purple Rain.

Bob Gillespie stands by the entrance, shoulders filling out a tweed jacket, silently mouthing Prince’s words. The 77-year-old passed his love of a singalong on to his son, the raucous Primal Scream frontman who bears his name. In a gap between numbers, a middle-aged woman with tightly pursed lips stops for a chat. “Don’t worry, I can help,” Gillespie says in a low, gravelly voice, flicking a hand through his white hair. She smiles, reassured.

In his native city, Bob Gillespie’s reputation goes before him. He is the union firebrand who took on Robert Maxwell. He is also probably the most famous Labour MP that Glasgow never had, the man whose defeat in a supposedly unlosable 1988 byelection in Govan was a watershed moment for Scotland, and Scottish nationalism.

Bob Gillespie
Outside the bar, the street is bathed in sunshine, illuminating a series of bright blue posters tacked up in the windows of a council flat. All say just one word: “Yes.” Glasgow voted for independence last year. Now Labour seems set to lose dozens of Westminster seats in its onetime heartlands to the Scottish National party. If anyone knows what that feels like, it’s Bob Gillespie.

In 1988 it was no summer of love in the shadows of the shipyards on the southern lip of Glasgow’s Clyde. Rangers had finished a lowly third in the league, behind bitter rivals Celtic. Margaret Thatcher was in the process of denationalising British Shipbuilders. Govan’s Fairfield yard would soon be sold off. That July, Labour leader Neil Kinnock nominated Govan MP Bruce Millan as a European Commissioner. The ensuing byelection would be a formality. In the previous year’s general election, Labour won a record victory in Scotland, returning 50 MPs. Millan took more than five times the vote of his nearest challenger in Govan. Scottish nationalists finished a distant fourth.

Labour chose Gillespie as its candidate. Gillespie, a vivacious product of Glasgow’s docks, seemed a neat fit with working-class Govan. After returning from the navy with “Hong Kong” tattooed on his knuckles – a memento of a drunken escapade in the entrepot – Gillespie had built a formidable union career. By 1988, he was negotiating with print bosses across the UK.

But it soon became apparent that Govan would not be as straightforward as the Labour hierarchy assumed. Labour was slumping in the polls. The self-styled “fighting fifty” Scottish Labour MPs elected in 1987 were powerless in Tory-controlled Westminster. Split on the issue of a devolved Scottish parliament, the party was equally divided about how to respond to the poll tax. The newly minted levy was to be implemented in Scotland first before being rolled out across the UK. Labour rejected proposals for mass non-payment. The Scottish National party saw its chance.

“Our strategy in Govan was absolutely clear, to pin the Labour party on two points: they didn’t know what to do about the poll tax and they weren’t the party they were,” recalls Jim Sillars, the SNP’s candidate and himself a former Labour MP.

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Jim Sillars, SNP candidate in the 1988 Glasgow Govan byelection. Photograph: Guardian

The SNP had form in Govan. In 1973, a glamorous 30-year-old publican named Margo MacDonald – nicknamed “the blonde bombshell” by an enraptured press corps – overturned a massive Labour majority to win a historic nationalist victory. By 1988, Sillars and MacDonald were husband and wife.

But the political landscape in Govan had shifted in the decade and a half since MacDonald had shocked the Labour establishment. The defiant radicalism of Jimmy Reid and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was a fading memory. The SNP was openly loathed, blamed for ushering Thatcher into power after its support for a no-confidence motion precipitated the collapse of the James Callaghan administration in 1979.

“We were despised,” says Sillars, leaning back on a tan easy chair in his ground-floor flat on Edinburgh’s southside. Near his slippered feet lie copies of Marx’s Capital, biographies of Hitler and Stalin, and Alex Salmond’s recent referendum campaign diary.

Initially, the SNP’s aims in Govan were timorous. Reduce the Labour majority to a few thousand. Give the party a scare. But as the short byelection campaign began, the mood changed. Nationalists descended upon Govan. More than 500 turned out to canvass in one day alone. Sillars’s call to refuse to pay the poll tax chimed with an angry electorate. A Labour press officer drafted from London for the campaign later recalled the Proclaimers “driving round Govan on the back of a flatbed truck urging everyone to kick Labour where it hurt”.

Bob Gillespie was struggling. Local Labour party membership numbered just 170. Many were of retirement age. Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell used his titles – notably the influential and traditionally Labour-leaning Daily Record – to launch withering attacks on his union nemesis.

“Maxwell always put gagging orders on people. He would never have been able to do that if you only spoke as an MP in the Palace of Westminster. So he went after me,” says Gillespie, with a rueful shake of his head. He offered to stand down. Kinnock would not hear of it: “He said: ‘You just have to do the best you can and I’ll have a go at Maxwell.’” The Labour leader would regret not heeding the warning.

Days before the byelection, Gillespie floundered in a live debate on Scottish Television when asked a question about subsidiarity in the European Union. “Bob didn’t want to show his ignorance,” recalls Sillars. “He got so distracted trying to answer that he knocked over the microphone. That television debate was a disaster for Bob. So it was good for us.”

On 10 November 1988, two days after George HW Bush was elected US president, Govan went to the polls. Jim Sillars appeared on the ballot paper as “SNP Anti-Poll Tax Candidate”. He won a majority of 3,554 on a massive 33% swing.

A BBC exit poll showed that 32% of Govan voters thought “representing Scotland’s interests” was the most important issue, followed by 21% citing the poll tax. More than half rated the performance of Scotland’s Labour MPs as “poor” or “very poor”. In London, Tony Benn took to his diary. The Govan defeat, he wrote, was “a reflection of our failure to discuss constitutional questions, which are at the core of the devolution argument”.

I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

Bob Gillespie is a talkative man but he grows quiet, even sullen, when asked about what happened in 1988. “I don’t feel anything about it at all,” he says, cradling a can of sugar-free Irn Bru. “That was only six weeks, seven weeks of my life. I went back to work.” Gillespie never stood for public office again. After Govan, he raised over £1m for victims of Chernobyl. Dozens of Belarusian children were brought to a convalescing home in Ayr. “I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’”

Labour subsequently tried to blame Gillespie for his loss. Selection rules were tightened. But some close to the Govan campaign complained they were hamstrung by “the shambolic organisational abilities of those sent up from London”.

Govan 1988 changed Scottish politics, and Scotland. Although Sillars lost the seat at the next general election, he believes his victory put the nationalists back on the political map. “It ended the period of vicious animosity among people towards the SNP. We were back with some credibility.” In the wake of its Govan defeat, Labour finally decided to join the constitutional convention, paving the way for devolution in 1997.

Ten years later, the SNP won its first elections to the Edinburgh parliament. Now the nationalists stand on the verge of unprecedented general election success. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has energised the nation. As a teenager, the future first minister had a poster of Jim Sillars on her wall. Govan 1988 was her very first political campaign.

The problems that plagued Labour in Glasgow more than two and a half decades ago are even worse now. The traditional party of industrial Scotland lacks members, drive and momentum. Gillespie, however, is still unflinching in his support. He campaigned against independence last year. Gillespie’s photograph appears on local Labour party election leaflets. He is smiling, his beloved bichon frise Pepe in his arms.

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Bob Gillespie (left) with Michael Foot, Helen Liddell and Denis Healey at Central America fundraiser event in the 1980s. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

These days, however, Bob Gillespie spends more time surrounded by music than politics. “I’ve always loved music,” he says. In the 1960s, he ran a Glasgow folk club. Billy Connolly was a floor singer. (“He was never a singer, never.”) His son, Bobby Jr, used to lie awake at night listening as the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Muddy Waters spun on the turntable at the parties his parents threw in their council house.

The Primal Scream singer has credited his father with introducing him to rock’n’roll and socialism. “My dad was an activist, he was a trade unionist and he was a Marxist and he was always involved in that struggle and it took up his life,” he said in 2013.

Today, Jim Sillars is on the fringes of the SNP. His wife, Margo, died just months before the referendum. In his spare time he tutors novice SNP general election candidates, including Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old student whose audacious bid to unseat Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in Paisley has unmistakable echoes of Sillars’ win in Govan.

In 1988, there were only a handful of SNP-Labour marginals. Last month, the Electoral Reform Society classified all seats in Scotland not held by the SNP as marginal. Now there are Govans right across the country.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Scotland’s Independence Generation

On Wednesday lunchtime, a bagpiper heralded the arrival of Gordon Brown at a community hall in Glasgow. Once the music faded out, the former prime minister launched into a speech that has already been hailed by some as the oration that saved the union. Amid a cheering crowd waving ‘no thanks’ placards Brown, with a fiery intensity often missing in office, called on supporters “to stand up and be counted”.

The following day, Scots did just that, voting stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55 to 45 on a record high turnout of over 84 per cent.

Historians might credit Gordon Brown’s late intervention with swinging the vote back to the unionist side, but throughout Scotland’s two-year long campaign nationalists consistently failed to convince Scots that they would be better off in an independent state. What the yes side did do – in towns and villages across the land, often using social media – was persuade thousands of political neophytes and old stagers to become actively involved in probably the biggest grassroots political campaign Scotland has ever seen.

yesOn Wednesday, as the crowd was on its feet applauding Gordon Brown in Glasgow, councillor Willie Clarke and Michael Payne sat chatting about the referendum vote in the backroom of the Benarty community centre, fifty miles, away in the former Labour leader’s Fife constituency. Both men had spent the past six months campaigning for a ‘yes’. Almost every week hundreds of locals – some who had not voted for years – packed into the centre in this small, former mining village to hear visiting speakers and participate in debates.

“I’ve not seen anything like this in terms of public meetings. The last time I saw this community galvanized like this was the miner’s strike,’ said Payne, the community centre’s manager. The 1984 miners strike – and its defeat – cast a dark shadow across Benarty. Unemployment is high and jobs are scare for those living in Benarty’s rows of pebble-dashed terrace houses set on an escarpment below low, tree-topped hills. “The solidarity is still there. It died a bit after the miner’s strike but it’s back now,” said Payne.

Scotland’s referendum was a direct result of the Scottish National Party winning a majority in elections to the devolved parliament in 2011. But the roots of the disquiet that led almost half of Scots to vote to leave the 307-year-old union with England are etched in the landscape in places like Benarty. Deindustrialization has left this once self-sufficient community reliant on welfare and public sector jobs. Politics has changed, too. Labour no longer enjoys a monopoly on power in the old pit towns; Scottish nationalists, and the very idea of independence, has caught the imagination of a long-neglected population.

As everywhere else in Scotland, the pro-independence side was by far the most visible in Benarty on the eve of the referendum. Saltires hung in the breeze out of second floor windows. In the car park, half a dozen vehicles sported blue ‘yes’ stickers on their windows. There was just a solidary ‘save the union’ badge.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re going back to the 40 and 50s for a campaign like this,’ said councillor Willie Clarke. When we last met in the spring, Willie Clarke seemed friendly but tired. On Wednesday, he was ebullient, taking at length about the campaign – and its aftermath. “I’m very encouraged by what’s happening,’ he said as we drove through the former mining towns of central Fife. Shops were boarded up. “I believe that Scotland will be an independent nation, if it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it but it’ll happen.”

That evening, just twelve hours before polls opened, several thousand independence supporters filled Glasgow’s George Square, transforming this normally rather staid collection of statues and grey asphalt into a carnival. A middle-aged woman meandered slowly through the crowd with a sign that read, ‘Scotland don’t be scared’. Hipsters walked across the square with ‘yes’ stickers in their beards, a young couple wearing matching ‘Ja’ badges pushed a pram. Conga lines started up; people chanted ‘Scotland’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’. At one end of the square, political speeches gave way to rave music in the gloaming. Near the city chambers, rows of uniformed police separated a small group of far-right protesters waving Union flags from the much larger mass of yes supporters.

Few were talking about the referendum itself. Those that were thought the latest polls – showing a four-point lead for the no campaign – had underestimated the size of the yes vote. ‘We can win this,’ said a topless busker in a kilt.

Scotland’s yes campaign was often characterised by an optimism that bordered on blind faith. Many supporters were drawn less to a Braveheart vision of Scottish nationhood, and more to a belief that the political system in London was beyond reform. The 20-somethings clambering on the George Square statues, chanting ‘yes, yes, yes’, on Wednesday looked like protestors in Puerta de Sol in Madrid or Istanbul’s Gezi Park – with added Saltires and Scotland football tops.

“I’m absolutely disgusted by Westminster. Not by the UK, not by England, I’m disgusted by Westminster,’ said June Dickson, 50, from Livingston in central Scotland. A Scottish flag by her side, Dickson complained about the expenses scandals and the war in Iraq. (Iraq was a turning point in modern Scottish political history: just over a decade ago, over 50,000 people marched in Glasgow against the war. Alex Salmond rarely failed to mention the Scottish National Party’s opposition to the invasion – or Labour’s support of it).

Ms Dickson’s brother, Lawrence, was killed by the IRA in sniper in south Armagh in 1993. “My brother fought and died to protect his people, the people of the UK, a UK he thought was an equal, just country. I don’t see how anyone can look at the UK now and say it’s any of those things,” she said, holding back tears.

Irish-born SNP Glasgow councillor Feargal Dalton stood under a plinth in the middle of George Square waiting for his teenage son to emerge from a sea of blue and white Saltires, peppered with Basque, Catalan and even Serbian flags. Nearby people posed for photos beside a life-size Loch Ness monster cuddly toy. “I’m nervous,” Dalton admitted.

He was right to be. That the George Square party was more wake than celebration would only become clear in the small hours of Friday morning – as the results began to pour in from across Scotland – but even on Thursday morning, as polls opened, there were signs that the visibility was not the same as support for the yes campaign.

In Easterhouse, a sprawling 1960s—era housing estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, yes placards hung from almost every lamppost and seemed to occupy every second living room window. But most of the people trickling in and out of the St Rose of Lima primary school seemed, quietly, to be voting for the union.

“I think we’re better together,” said Marie Doherty, a local mother. She was worried about the prospects for North Sea oil and the economic stability of an independent Scotland. “My husband has voted no, too,” she said.

Easterhouse is Scotland’s political apathy capital: less than 35 per cent here voted in the 2011 Holyrood elections. The yes campaign hoped to win the day by coaxing the apathetic out of their stupor with promises that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’. But for some the no campaign’s negative messages – warning of the dangers of independence – won the day. “I don’t normally vote at all but I was worried about this so I came out to vote no,” said one local woman.

On Thursday, Easterhouse, like the rest of Scotland, was a story of quiet nos, and loud yeses. Just after lunch, a cavalcade of mothers pushing prams turned up the path to the polling station. In unison they sang “Flower of Scotland”. They wore ‘yes’ t-shirts and badges, and waved flags as small children ran among their buggies.

“These past few weeks I think Scotland’s found a voice. We know now that we don’t have to settle for what the government give us,” said Tracy, a mother who had organsied the group to come en masse to vote.

“I want to have a better future for my kids, for my grandkids,’ she said. “Scotland is going to be very different tomorrow either way. If it’s a no vote it gives these kids the chance to say “we can do it”. If we don’t do it they will.’

As Thursday night slipped into Friday morning, even the most ardent independence supporters were forced to admit defeat. No scored victories in all but four of Scotland’s more more than 30 electoral areas. (Glasgow, however, did vote for independence). On Friday morning, a dozen or so independence supporters sat drinking beer and waving their flags in an empty George Square. “I’m devastated,” said one teenager, in between sips of Tennent’s. The mood was one of quiet despondency, not riotous anger.

The question now is where Scotland, and its newly mobilized generation, goes from here. It is too early to tell if Westminster can offer a devolution settlement to satisfy Scotland’s growing sense of self-determination. If it can’t, the Scots may be on the streets again, and next time rousing cries to ‘stand up and be counted’ might not be enough to save the union.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 21/09/2014.

‘Is It Worse to Be Run from Edinburgh or London?’

In his book, the Making of the Crofting Community, the Scottish historian James Hunter quotes a small farmer in the Highlands as saying they “hate us in London but ignore us in Edinburgh.” Standing on the windswept pier at Stornoway, the main town on the isle of Lewis, both metropoles feel like a world away. The twice-daily ferry takes almost three hours just to reach the mainland. From there, it is another 200 miles to the Scottish capital.

There are few places in the United Kingdom further from the corridors of power than the Western Isles, the scenic archipelago of fifteen inhabited ribbons off Scotland’s west coast. Many of the islanders speak Scots Gaelic and rely on farming, fishing and tourism for their income. So what does the prospect of Scottish independence – or staying in the union – mean so far away from Westminster and Holyrood?

The Western Isles is a Scottish National Party stronghold. Both the sitting MP and the member of the Scottish Parliament are nationalists. But when it comes to the referendum Lewis, where the majority of the islands’ population of around 30,000 live, seems as split as the rest of Scotland. “The island is 50/50,” says one local journalist. “People seem pretty settled in their minds. I don’t think the campaigns have made much impact.”

One of the reasons the yes and no sides have struggled to make inroads on Lewis is that the major national concerns are not always the most significant for this island community. Ask someone walking the narrow streets of Stornoway what the big issues are for them and they will most likely mention fuel poverty, the removal of tax relief on ferry freight and local control of revenue levied on using the seabed.

For some there is wariness about whether independence would actually mean more local power for places such as Lewis. The SNP administration at the devolved parliament in Holyrood has displayed a fondness for centralization, bringing policing, emergency services and European funding under central government control. A council tax freeze mandated from Holyrood has left officials in the pebbledashed council offices, built in the 1970s to house a newly created Western Isles local authority, with less control over local affairs than they used to have.

“One of the worries is that it is worse to be run from Edinburgh than London,” says Fred Silver, former editor of the Stornoway Gazette when we met for a balti in Lewis’s only curry house. An Englishman who has spent more than two decades in the Western Isles, Silver sports a blue “Yes” badge but concedes that Edinburgh has not always done right by the islands.

“You can actually demonstrate that the best period for the island was under the Tory government in the 1980s,” he says, citing the creation of a Gaelic television fund, the spread of Gaelic medium education and the establishment of a local enterprise company that has since been disbanded.

Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister in Westminster in Tony Blair’s first administration, has long been one of the strongest critics of the SNP. “Nationalism believes in taking decision making to the centre. Their localism is Scotland,” he says. “There is a very strong philosophy in Scotland just now of centralizing in order to bring everything under ministerial control.”

“There are large areas of public policy that need completely different perspectives in island communities or in very peripheral communities and to be honest there is not a lot of interest in any of that. They will tick the boxes but there is no real understanding of how difficult things are or what is needed,” says Wilson, who was a Labour MP in Ayrshire.

But Alastair Allan, local SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, says that only a “yes” vote would guarantee more powers for island communities. “The decision about what Scotland’s budget is is not ours to make. We pay our taxes to the UK government and they decide what Scotland gets to spend.”

The islands have certainly benefited from the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament, particularly when it comes to changing Scotland’s almost feudal system of land ownership. Around 2500 people own about three-quarters of all private land in Scotland. Take a drive almost anywhere beyond the housing schemes of the Central Belt and you will soon run into vast private estates. The Duke of Buccleuch alone owns some quarter of a million acres.

In 2003, the Labour government in Holyrood introduced the Land Reform Act, which allows local communities to buy the land they live on. While the act has had little impact on the baronial estates on the mainland, it has transformed many island communities. Since its introduction, around 70 per cent of the Western Isles has come under direct community ownership. On islands like Eigg, the local community has been able to raise money to buy the entire island.

For some the community buy-outs on islands like Harris and South Uist are evidence of why Scotland needs independence to fulfil its potential. David Cameron (not the British prime minister – the chair of Community Land Scotland) disagrees. “We have community empowerment now and that has got cross-community support. Whatever happens next week won’t make a whit of difference to us,” he says at the end of a day-long conference on land reform held in the function room of a Stornoway hotel. Among the delegates are representatives from communities across the Western Isles that are at various stages in purchasing the land they live on.

For many on the Scottish islands, the referendum on Thursday is not so much about currency or European Union membership but what the communities themselves will gain either from staying with the UK or being part of an independent Scotland. In 2013, the Western Isles teamed up with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, as part of the “Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign” aimed at securing a better deal for island communities whatever way the vote goes.

In June, the Scottish government in Edinburgh offered island communities control of all income that comes from leasing the seabed for wind farms, piers and boats moorings – money that currently goes to the UK’s Crown Estate – and the devolution of planning to local partnerships. The London government, so far, has promised little.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line”. On such modest proposals, perhaps, are islands (and nations) won and lost.

This piece originally appeared on Vice. 

The View from Scotland’s Islands

DISPATCH

STORNOWAY, ScotlandChange comes slowly on the island of Lewis, 50 miles off Scotland’s west coast. The island of 20,000 people has been a stronghold of evangelical Christianity for more than a century and a half. It was only five years ago that the first Sunday ferry docked at the quayside that dominates Stornoway, the windswept town that is home to around half of Lewis’s inhabitants. Shops still obey the Sabbath. And beyond Stornoway’s narrow streets mobile phone service is patchy and broadband more the exception than the rule.

But change could be on the way for this island community, suddenly and soon. On Thursday, Lewis, along with the rest of Scotland, will vote on independence from the United Kingdom.

The main focus of the referendum debate might be hundreds of miles south in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Lewis has not been left behind. Bright blue Yes signs are strapped to practically every second lamppost along the pier. Independence supporters are not the only ones displaying their colors: “Proud Brit Proud Scot” reads a sign in an upstairs window of one of the town’s numerous pebble-dashed terrace houses. Nearby the red, white, and blue of the British flag flutters in the firm breeze.

When it comes to independence Lewis, like the rest of Scotland, is split. Nationwide, the no side has a slender lead, according to most recent opinion polls. A straw poll taken after a referendum debate in Stornoway earlier this month finished in a dead heat: 99 in favor of leaving the 307-year-long union with England, 99 against.

The national debate has been dominated by big-ticket issues, such as what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it would be allowed to join the European Union, but for many here on Lewis the key question is what the islands themselves would gain, either from staying with the United Kingdom or being part of a new state.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent. Last year, the Western Isles, along with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, launched the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign to bring the islands more autonomy during the referendum.While both sides appealed directly to the islands, Yes has certainly been the more energetic of the two campaigns, attracting political neophytes with promises of a new politics and a fairer Scotland. Stornoway, like many towns, has its own pop-up “Yes” shop, housed in an old storefront beside a bar on the main shopping street. Inside, Alasdair Allan, the area’s local member of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, is confident of victory.

“There has been a real change in mood in the last month,” says Allan, who moved hundreds of miles from Scottish Borders, which abuts England, to Lewis in 2006 specifically to contest the seat. The following year he was elected to represent Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles), a constituency of less than 30,000 people that stretches almost 130 miles from the tip of Lewis in the north, to the remote island of Barra in the south.

A giant foam Yes sign sits on the floor underneath Allan’s desk. “Vote Yes 18-09-14” is painted in blue on the shop window. In the space of half an hour, three local activists arrive for supplies, eating into a stack of campaign literature and stickers, fuel for their door-to-door canvasing.

When Allan joined the Scottish National Party in 1989, Scottish independence was a fringe pursuit. By this time next week it could have could have created Europe’s newest state. “I’ve spent my entire life campaigning for this week. I have an enormous emotional interest in what happens,” says Allan.

Next door, an elderly lady sits outside her house drinking tea, a copy of the fiercely pro-union London-based newspaper the Daily Mail on her lap. Above her door is a homemade poster in red with a single word: No.

There is no sign of discord between neighbors on the two sides of Scotland’s constitutional debate, but the referendum has created tensions on the island, says Iver Martin, a local minister in the Free Church, a smaller Scottish denomination that split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 over the role of the state in religious affairs. “For some people it has really become an obsession to them,” he says. “There will be a continual agitation for some time to come. I don’t think that makes for a healthy society.”

The minister is a committed no voter but his congregation is free to make up their own mind, he says. Martin has no problem entertaining opposing views, as the copies of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusionand Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes on his bookshelf attest. “The tradition I represent is not afraid of debate, not afraid of openness and honesty,” says the minister.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom. Of the 15 inhabited in the chain, those north of Benbecula are predominantly Protestant, those to the south Catholic. There is a strong Gaelic tradition on the islands; road signs are bi-lingual. And the islands bear traces of not just Scottish and British culture but also Norse influence dating back more than a millennium.For centuries, Lewis was the redoubt of small farmers and fishermen. Life here, as close to Reykjavik as to London, is still hard. Winters are long, and the flat, boggy plains around Stornoway offer little respite from the elements. Incomes are still below the Scottish average and more than one in four live in poverty, according to official statistics. Many struggle to afford fuel to heat their homes. Lewis’s economy remains heavily reliant on the public sector — the Western Isles council and the local health board remain two of the largest employers despite shedding jobs in recent years due to decreased funding from the central government.

Still, there have been improvements in some areas. Harris Tweed, which by act of parliament can only be made on the island, is going through a renaissance: Once the preserve of elderly gents, everyone from Madonna to Gwyneth Paltrow has been spotted wearing the iconic hand-woven woolen fabric. Tourism has increased, too.

On the far side of Lewis, where flat bog gives way to sea cliffs and isolated sandy beaches, the biggest tweed mill on the island, Harris Tweed Hebrides stands a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. The mill’s chairman, former Labour minister Brian Wilson, says he is worried that independence could undermine the tweed industry across the island. Last week a number of business leaders including representatives from BP and Standard Life warned about the consequences of Scotland leaving the union.

Wilson, a longtime critic of the nationalist government in Scotland, is sure Scots will reject independence on Thursday. “I have to believe that the society I live in is not going to march to the precipice without noticing what is over the edge. It’s taken a long time but now the economic realities are bearing in quite rapidly,” he says.

For many on Lewis, the decision could come down to whether they believe staying in the union or going it alone will best serve the island’s interests. So far neither the UK government nor the Scottish National Party (SNP) that is leading the Yes campaign have struck a formal arrangement with the trio of the Western Isles, Orkney, and Shetland on more powers for the islands but there have been talks. Revenue from the Crown Estates, a public trust that owns and levies a tax on the seabed, is crucial.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line,” he says. Last week, in an attempt to block the independence surge, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed that more powers would be devolved to the parliament in Edinburgh if Scotland decides not to go it alone.

Whether warnings from business leaders or the promise of more Scottish autonomy are enough to convince voters to back the union will become clear early on Friday morning. On Lewis, the expectation is that life will revert back to normal whatever the outcome.

“It’s in our nature to just get on with it,” says a journalist who has worked on the island most of his life. “Whatever happens you take it on the chin and you get on with it.”

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Showdown in Scotland

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead.

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, theSun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

***

What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” — but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked upon the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that most Scots favor enhanced devolution (that is, more powers for the Scottish Parliament) over full independence, but the three main parties — Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats — that comprise Better Together have failed to present a common program for greater devolved powers after a No vote. Instead, the parties’ marriage of convenience has become increasingly strained as the referendum campaign has dragged on: Traditionally the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour has been forced to share platforms with their gravest political foes, the Conservatives. David Cameron’s Tories are pariahs in Scotland, holding just one of 59 seats representing Scotland in the UK’s parliament and blamed for the savage de-industrialization of the Margaret Thatcher years that still scars the country today. The Liberal Democrats, once a significant presence north of Hadrian’s Wall, were routed in the 2011 elections to the devolved Scottish parliament — punishment for their decision to go into a coalition with Conservatives in London.

Meanwhile, “Yes Scotland,” the official independence campaign, has not exactly set the pulses racing. Its messaging has been vague and reports of internal splits have been rife. But pro-independence forces have something their unionist opponents largely lack: a dedicated, highly motivated grassroots political movement the likes of which Scotland (and possibly even Britain) has not seen in generations. In places like Easterhouse, a sprawling housing estate (or project) on the outskirts of Glasgow, the independence message is being driven not by the SNP, but by new groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, a left-wing organization formed in 2012 that has proved effective at mobilizing disenfranchised voters.

Canvas returns now suggest that most Scots in working-class communities intend to vote Yes.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking. (Glasgow, for example, hassome of the worst mortality rates in the whole of Europe. In the Calton district, infamously, male life expectancy is just 59 years.) That said, the nationalist clarion call to abandon a “broken Britain” does not just play in housing estates: Polls suggest that younger voters are coming over to Yes in ever-increasing numbers. Thousands of grassroots activists have been mobilized, many for the first time.How is the movement gathering activists and achieving these gains? The SNP has long aped the 2008 Obama campaign, asking whether Scotland wants hope or fear. In reality, the nationalists have used a liberal amount of both, seasoning the optimistic vision of an affluent, nuclear-free, Nordic-lite independent Scotland with a salutary dose of doom-laden rhetoric about never-ending Tory rule and the erosion of the devolved parliament’s powers. But the key difference between this approach and that of Better Together is that the nationalists waited until the last month of the campaign to go negative — a tactic that seems to be working, judging by opinion polls.

Additionally, while unionists have the weight of the status quo behind them — and the advantage of incumbency — the nationalists have attempted to make this a referendum about not just Scottish independence, but also the Westminster political system. In calling for “Independence in Europe,” the Yes campaign is expressing a populist opprobrium of establishment politics that resonates with many voters.

***

In late August, I spent an afternoon in Gretna, in southern Scotland. For centuries, this border town was a haven for eloping English couples taking advantage of Scottish law to legally wed at 14 (for boys) and 12 (for girls) without parental consent. Nowadays, a huge outlet store is the main attraction.

In a field just behind the shopping center stands a small pile of rocks. Some are colored in red, white, and blue — the shades of the union flag — and carry slogans like “Stay Together” and “Never Apart.” Passersby are invited to stop a while and add a stone in honor.

This is the “Auld Acquaintance Cairn,” the brainchild of Rory Stewart, erstwhile deputy governor in Iraq and now a Conservative member of parliament on the English side of the border. It is meant to symbolize the connections between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Stewart had said he hoped it would reach nine feet tall. But it was barely a third of that with less than three weeks to polling day. In the half an hour I spent at the cairn, nobody else stopped by.

The message is clear: The No side might still be the favorite to stumble across the finish line first in the coming referendum, but it has singularly failed to make an emotional case for the United Kingdom. A Better Together activist told me recently, “It is like a business transaction. I look at the sums; they don’t add up, so you don’t do it.” This might be a good reason to reject independence, but such instrumentality hardly bodes well for the union’s future health — and such sentiments leave plenty of room for uncertainty about what will happen on Sept. 18.

Nationalists have won the argument that Scotland could be a separate state. The question now is whether they can persuade their fellow Scots that it should be. If they can, what seemed unimaginable just a few months ago could become a reality.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

On the Campaign Trail

On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.

Elements of the Yes campaign – including the egg-throwing and name-calling – are disquieting. The Panglossian vision of a post-independent Scotland has been accused of silencing dissenting voices. But on the other side of the fence, Better Together has run one of the most vacuous, cynical campaigns in British political history. Beyond the tawdry threats to erect border posts at Coldstream or the ludicrous suggestion that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo would be deported if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, the No campaign has failed to make a case for the union that wouldn’t fit in the ledger of a Fife accountant. The ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday was treated with contempt by everyone I met in Glasgow. ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

On Sunday, I visited a stall festooned with blue Yes balloons on a street corner a mile from my flat. Passing cars beeped their horns. The organiser was a local SNP councillor, helped by a middle-aged woman who worked in a bio-tech firm. She said she’d never been involved in a political campaign before but had spent months knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and standing in the cold talking to people. Thousands of political neophytes with little or no party allegiances have mobilised in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Activists at my local train station have been handing out flyers, balloons and stickers. I recently spent an afternoon in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing schemes, with an eloquent 17-year-old socialist. He has spent months canvassing and organising voter registration drives in an area where fewer than 35 per cent voted in the 2011 Holyrood election.

On Monday, the former home secretary John Reid and the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont held a press conference with shipyard workers and union leaders across the Clyde from BAE Systems’ Govan yard. On a dreich morning, Lamont and Reid descended from ‘the indyref express’ to be met by banks of photographers and party hacks in matching blue Better Together rainwear trying to pass as concerned citizens. Reid did most of the talking to the press. Afterwards I grabbed a word with a ‘continuous improvement coach’ at BAE. He was voting No, but not because he thought he would lose his job: ‘I’m saying no to division. I don’t like the concept of nationalism.’

But what are the seemingly unending stream of ‘emotional pleas’ that David Cameron et al have inflicted on Scots in recent weeks if not nationalism? On Monday night, Tom Nairn made a rare public appearance, in a haar-enveloped Edinburgh. ‘The moment is right for Scotland to have, in a relatively short time, the chance to contribute to nationality politics and not nationalism in the old, traditional sense,’ he said. There was lots of passion from the floor, but a feeling, too, that most people there were preparing themselves for disappointment.

The choice tomorrow didn’t have to be binary, but the third option – more powers for Holyrood without full independence – was left off the ballot paper. Then on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, Scotland woke to news that ‘devo max’ was back on if they voted No. The specifics of the additional powers seem both vague and unworkable, but the medium was more important than the message. The pledge, which could effectively usher in federalism across the UK, was delivered not after months of discussion, or even in person by the prime minister. Instead, ‘the vow’ was splashed across the Daily Record. If Westminster thinks that the front page of a tabloid is the best way to talk to Scotland in 2014 then it really has learned nothing from the referendum.

This piece originally appeared in the London Review of Books.

Scotland’s ‘Borderers’ steadfast for ‘No’

Coldstream, Scotland – Jock Law is in no doubt about which way he is going to vote in Scotland’s independence referendum on September 18.

“I’m against, definitely against,” the septuagenarian former soldier says, taking off his thick-rimmed glasses and shaking his head.

Few are as passionate in their support for the union with England as Law. A red, white, and blue Union flag with “Better Together” printed across it takes pride of place in the window of his onetime picture framing business on High Street, in the Scottish border town of Coldstream.

Just below, the faces of Scottish nationalist leaders Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have been superimposed onto a pair of cartoon sheep: “Don’t let this pair pull the wool over your eyes,” reads a handwritten sign.

But increasingly, nationalists are gaining ground across Scotland. The latest polls put the two sides neck-and-neck – a dramatic turnaround from just a month ago when the “Yes” side trailed by 22 points. A new poll released on September 10 placed the “No” camp only at 53 percent while the “Yes” side surged to 47 percent.

Financial impact

The referendum will almost certainly come down to economics – many Scots are wary of the financial impact of leaving the 300-year-old union – but in Coldstream these concerns are particularly hard felt. England is just a matter of metres away, across the babbling River Tweed that separates the two countries.

“I just don’t think independence is possible, we can’t afford it,” says Law.

Law worries if Scotland votes yes, the stolid stone bridge at the end of the town would become an international border crossing. He has other fears, too.

“There are a lot of people here on the border who work in England and vice versa. How will they pay their taxes? How will that work?”

Coldstream – like many of the picturesque towns and villages dotted along the 154km-long border between Scotland and England that was legally established in 1237 – has long celebrated its location on the edge of two countries. The first road sign on entering the town declares: “Welcome to Coldstream – The First True Border Toon.”

Locals often describe themselves as neither English nor Scottish, but “Borderers”. Many have family or business interests on both sides of the invisible boundary. The referendum, however, is forcing them to choose whether to stay in the United Kingdom, or join an independent Scotland.

New divisions

As the “No Thanks” stickers and “Yes” posters dotting the neat High Street attest, Coldstream is as divided as the rest of Scotland.

“From my standpoint, I don’t see what the benefit would be,” says Trevor Brunning, a father of four from North London who runs an army supply store on High Street. “I’d be worried about my business if we vote for independence.”

The border region has long been stony ground for Scottish nationalists. The area voted heavily against devolution in the ill-fated 1979 referendum. As many as 70 percent of those living near the border are opposed to Scottish independence, according to a poll conducted this summer.

In Dumfries, some 130km west along the border, Englishman Mark Frankland is an active campaigner for the “Yes” vote. “Independence would be good for Scotland – and for England,” said Frankland.

Having moved north with his wife and two children in 1996, Frankland now runs First Base Agency, a charity based in a former bakery beside the River Nith in the centre of Dumfries.

The centre offers drug, alcohol, and family counselling services. “Food donations urgently required,” reads a sign in the window. Last month, they gave out 450 food parcels. Eighteen-months ago, that figure was about 100.

This huge increase in demand was caused by the welfare reforms introduced by the coalition in Westminster, says Frankland. “There is virtually no policy in Edinburgh [the devolved Scottish parliament] that affects people’s ability to buy food.”

The independence debate has energised political neophytes such as Frankland as never before – particularly on the yes side, which has a huge manpower advantage over the pro-UK “Better Together” campaign.

‘Don’t change things’

On a busy Saturday in the prosperous market town of Peebles, the heart of the only constituency in Scotland represented by a Conservative MP, activists hand out “Yes” stickers and campaign literature from a large stall. Many locals walk by, but some stop to chat. Topics range from health and education to inequality and taxes.

“We have been packing out the halls all around,” says “Yes” supporter David Kenyon from nearby Walkerburn. “The Scottish people realise this is the biggest decision we will make.”

As if on cue, a teenage female bagpipe player breaks into a rendition of “Highland Cathedral”, a popular melody composed by a pair of German musicians that has been mooted as a possible national anthem for an independent Scotland.

“This is the toughest part of Scotland for ‘Yes’,” says independence activist Calum Kerr, 42. “The Borders has a strong tradition of ‘Aye Been’ – it’s always been you don’t change things.”

But Kerr, who combines a job in telecommunications with almost constant campaigning work, is upbeat about the prospects of pulling off a shock on polling day.

“From the very start I’ve been telling people, ‘we’re going to win this’. But now I really believe it.”

‘Functional not emotional’

A local “No” campaigner, who asked to be identified only as David, disagrees.

“For most Scots the union with England is functional, not emotional,” he says. “It is like a business transaction for me. I look at the sums, they don’t add up so you don’t do it.”

Alex Salmond has, he says, made too many unrealistic assumptions about everything from membership in the European Union, to sharing a currency with the UK.

“‘Yes’ Scotland are asking you to take a betting slip into the ballot box. ‘See that horse, I’m going to put everything on it.’ What will be the deciding factor on this will be economics. ‘Yes’ haven’t made the economic arguments,” he says.

Renowned for their reserve, many along the border with England are phlegmatic about the referendum. Where the independence debate in urban centres such as Glasgow and Edinburgh has often been heated, among the rolling hills and long valleys of “the debatable lands” between urban Scotland and England, the mood is markedly more temperate.

Traditionally, the region votes Liberal or Conservative, but the independence referendum is proving that in Scotland, old ideological ties are not as tight as they once were.

“I’m starting to get the feeling that it’s going to be really close,” says Jim Terras, chair of the Selkirk Conservative Club. “There are people in this club, even though it is a Conservative club, that are going to vote ‘Yes’.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.

At Rory Stewart’s Cairn

“We’re looking for the cairn.”  The woman behind the counter in the Cadbury’s outlet store in the Gretna Gateway shopping centre looks slightly bemused.  All around her, piled precariously high, are clear plastic bags filled to bursting with ‘Roses’ chocolates and mini-Wispas.  “Any 2 for £6” declare signs in red dotted across the shop.


“We’re looking for the cairn,” I try again.  “Rory Stewart’s cairn.”  There’s a flicker of recognition. “Oh yeah, that.” The directions aren’t great, but they are good enough.

After wandering through the sprawling Gretna Gateway car park – past Ulsterbus coaches half full of visitors clutching Ralph Lauren shopping bags – myself and my companion, a hirsute Greenie from Edinburgh, finally spot a homemade sign on the edge of the road: ‘The Cairn”. An arrow points into a field.

When Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, opened “the Auld Acquaintances Cairn” in July he said that the independence debate has “been too much about politicians and celebrities and not enough about giving ordinary people the chance to show how they feel.”  Stewart’s answer – a pile of rocks and scree behind a car park on the border – certainly owes more to Father Ted than Question Times.

Visitors are invited to add a fresh stone to the pile.  (“If you are feeling strong spend 10 minutes taking handfuls of rocks to the cairn,” suggests a sign.)  You can even paint your lump of rock, if you like.  Open tins of paint – red, white and blue – stand adjacent to a plastic bag filled with used gloves.  On the ground, an orgy of spilt paint bears a passing resemblance to A-level student’s pastiche of Jaspar Johns.

Stewart has said he hopes that the cairn will reach 9ft tall; at present it is not much more than half that.  We spend half an hour wandering around the site.  If I said we didn’t laugh quite a lot, I’d be lying.

There is a gazebo in blue and white with Stewart’s name above it and a pair of empty deck chairs.  No one else comes to visit but there are signs of previous life.  “DONT GO” (sic) implores a brick in white and blue.  “Better Together” says one rock.  “Let’s Stay As One”, another.  The menacing “All One Blood All One Nation” is more the exception than the rule.

One particularly ornate slab of drystone, decorated with the union flag and the Scottish Saltire, declares “Proud to be Scottish Proud to Be British Please Let’s Stay Together”.  “Please” is underlined, as if to emphasis the essential politeness of all this.

What indeed could be more civilised than the hope that a mound stones in Gretna can help pull the nations together?  Where the campaign in Glasgow and Fife, Edinburgh and Dundee, has at times been heated (and,dare I say, it “over-egged”), the cairn has all the reserve for which the Borders are renowned.  Even the “yes to independence” scrawled in the well-thumbed guest book seems more mischievous than malicious.

The Auld Acquaintances cairn is meant to symbolise the joyous connection between Scotland and England, to hark back to a time when Britain was really great, as David Cameron might say.  But there is something doleful, pathetic even about this empty field with its hill of stones and half full tins of paint.  I find myself feeling sorry for the people who have taken the time to come here, to park their cars and carry their stones. Do they know that nobody is making a case for their union?

Traffic whirrs by; the flags of the union flutter in the breeze coming in off the Solway Coast.  But the reality is that this brand of unionism – of four nations, and four peoples united – seems mortally wounded, possibly killed off by the very campaign that has sought to save Britain.

During the final televised debate a week or so ago, I listened out for an emotional argument for the union, a case for why Scotland and England are existentially better together.  All I, and the rest of Scotland, heard from Alastair Darling was currency, jobs, welfare. Where is the heart? Who speaks for Ken Moses, when he writes ‘Never Apart’ in the cairn guest book?

Unionism has become a baldly instrumental creed. As a Better Together campaigner in Peebles told me at the weekend, ‘It is like a business transaction for me. I look at the sums, they don’t add up so you don’t do it.’

Rory Stewart is no idiot. Earlier this year, he gave possibly the most perspicacious political interviewI’ve ever read, in which he talked about powerless faced by modern politicians.  But in reducing the union to pounds, shillings and pence the campaign to save Britain might end up killing it, regardless of the result in a couple of week’s time.

From Sark Bridge, overlooking the cairn, there is a great view into England, the hills of Cumbria rise up in the distance.  Down the road, at Burgh Marsh, is a monument to King Edward I who died attempting to invade and conquer Scotland in 1307.  The English got a measure of revenge at Solway Moss, near Gretna Junction, in 1542 when they routed a Scottish army.

Before we left the cairn, my Greenie friend and I walked across a molehill-filled field to the River Sark. ‘So this is the border?’ I asked.  ‘I believe so, yeah.’ We stood staring in silence at an inert stretch of water, about ten feet wide. It felt very peaceful.

This piece originally appeared on Newsnet Scotland.