Should Scotland’s famous arts fest join the independence debate?

August in Edinburgh in synonymous with the arts. This August over 25,000 performers have descended on the Scottish capital, offering everything from stand-up comedy and one-act plays to jazz, opera, and poetry readings as part of several separate festivals that are collectively known as the “Edinburgh festival.”

But while the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town will be littered with flyers and street performers until the end of this month, the program for next year’s festival is already causing a stir.

The 2014 Edinburgh festival – which bills itself as the largest arts festival in the world – is scheduled to end just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls in a historic referendum on independence.

But the Scots’ historic constitutional choice won’t be on agenda at the oldest of the festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), according to its director, Sir Jonathan Mills.

Mr. Mills told a Scottish newspaper earlier this month that he was “not anticipating anything in the [program] at all” next year about the independence debate. The program will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games – due to take place in Glasgow next summer – and the centenary of the start of World War I.

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with The Scotsman.

Founded in 1947, the EIF has a budget of £10 million ($15 million), around half of which comes from public funds.fringe

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts are “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina told the Sunday Herald, a popular Scottish newspaper. “The discussion has become really narrow and people are stating their positions. Nobody is really listening to each other and the festival would have been a great opportunity to listen.”

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful,” Ms. Mina added.

But the director of another of the festivals, the Edinburgh Book Festival, has said that independence will be a part of the conversation at his event in 2014. “Our job is to discuss things that matter, and for me to ignore the referendum would be the wrong thing to do. We want the book festival to be a safe and fair and unthreatening environment to discuss ideas and debates,”Nick Barley told The Guardian.

By far the largest slice of the Edinburgh festival pie belongs to the Fringe. It was inaugurated in 1947 when eight theater companies who were not invited to the International Festival decided to perform regardless, and has grown into one of the most recognizable arts festivals in the world, with a reputation for being more spontaneous and edgy than its more formal sibling. The Fringe has no selection committee and invites all types of performers and materials.

Despite this, Scottish independence remained a rather marginal theme in this year’s Fringe, says Ben Judge, editor of Fest magazine, a publication appearing each August about the city’s festivals. “You can count the number of independence-minded productions this year on the fingers of one hand. So why is it that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights seem so disengaged – at least creatively – from the debate?”

Not everyone agrees, however, that Scotland’s creative community are disconnected from next year’s referendum. Artists are struggling to find an outlet in mainstream Scottish cultural forums, says playwright and novelist Alan Bissett.

“You have to find your own space – put on a show [and] take it to the Edinburgh Fringe or put it on YouTube,” Mr. Bissett says.

Bissett believes that the arts have a particularly important role to play in the lead-up to next September’s vote. ‘‘Because [independence] is so complex, the arts is the ideal place to have that discussion,” he says. “Artists aren’t beholden to ‘the truth.’ We are much more about exploring the emotional complexities. People who experience a play, or a poem, or a novel about nationalism recognize more of it because it’s not black and white.”

As well as providing a forum for debate beyond the febrile, often partisan, atmosphere of the official “yes” and “no” campaigns, the arts can also act as an alternative record of next year’s vote, Bissett says.

“When we look back at the Treaty of Union [the agreement which led to the creation of Great Britain in 1707], one of the first things we think of is Robert Burns and his angry poem ‘[Such a] Parcel o’ Rogues [in a Nation].’ So now we can look back and see, ‘ah, not everyone was happy about the Treaty of Union.'”

Posterity is not the only aspect of the independence debate engaging Scottish artists. Many artists will also be actively fighting for a “yes” in the referendum in 2014.

“What artists sense with independence is that it can revitalize not just Scotland but the rest of the UK as well,” Bissett says.

Scotland’s Epic Media Fail

EDINBURGH, Scotland — When parliament opened here in 1999 with new powers thanks to the devolution of control away from London, it was expected to herald a golden age for Scottish journalism.

Back when Scots were ruled directly from Westminster, they already bought more newspapers per person than the rest of the British population. Circulation at the Herald, the largest broadsheet in Glasgow, regularly topped 100,000 issues, and tabloids such as the Daily Record sold many times more.

But today, just 12 months before people go to the polls in a historic vote on full independence, worries are mounting about the survival of the country’s newspaper industry.

The September 2014 referendum on whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years may be grabbing international headlines, but it’s doing nothing to counter a long slump in Scottish newspaper sales.

papersInstead, the press has found itself at the center of many bitter online debates about its perceived bias, particularly on the part of “yes” supporters who tend to accuse editors of failing to provide balanced coverage of the potential benefits of Scotland’s going it alone.

Stories about the possibility of London seizing the pandas at Edinburgh zoo and bombing Scottish airports in the event of a foreign threat have added to their sense of grievance.

“The unionist campaign has never knowingly undersold the scare stories around independence,’ writer Iain Macwhirter says. “And the media, in the eyes of the ‘yes’ campaign, has been happy to broadcast them.”

However, perceptions of bias are misplaced, says Julian Calvert, a lecturer in journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University.

“It’s very hard to find a newspaper that tries to look at both sides of the debate because [independence] is such a broad issue,” he says.

Unlike in similar political situations in Spain’s Catalonia and Quebec, Scotland has no avowedly pro-independence newspaper. The last such effort, the Scottish Standard, launched in 2005 and ended in dismal failure.

The weekly, middle-market tabloid aimed at nationalist-inclined readers — it featured a column from Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond, who has spearheaded the referendum — shut down after printing just seven issues. Circulation never climbed above 12,000.

Opinion polls suggest that around a third of Scots will vote “yes” next year, and a significant number remains undecided.

However, most experts believe the vote will fail.

Calvert believes the fact that no newspaper has come out in favor of independence owes more to bottom lines than editorial agendas.

“Most of the print media will take a commercial decision based on the most likely outcome,” he says. “They are probably sensing that there isn’t an enormous atmosphere for pro-independence stories.”

The mainstream Scottish press position on nationalism is less negative than its detractors claim, however. A number of newspapers, including the tabloid Scottish Sun and the broadsheet Sunday Herald, backed nationalist candidates during the last parliamentary elections in 2011.

“It is not quite true to say the press is opposed to the SNP,” Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker told an audience at a debate about independence and the media at the Edinburgh festival this week. “Our aim is to create a place where we can have a grown-up and responsible debate about the issues and independence.”

Regardless of the sides they support, newspapers are unlikely to be a deciding factor in next year’s referendum. “I don’t think the press will have a terribly influential role because people know what they are buying and they are re-enforcing their biases,” Calvert says.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the debate about independence, the mainstream media still sets the agenda, says Andrew Tickell, who blogs about law and politics.

The blogosphere still remains “quite reactive,” he says. “Bloggers respond to what’s happening in the broader press.”

How long that’s true remains to be seen. As newspaper sales continue to fall, many publications are subsisting on shoestring budgets.

Author and freelance journalist David Torrance says the real issue for the Scottish press isn’t covering the referendum, but a global problem in the internet age.

“The elephant in the room is the structural issues facing the press,” he says. “Even now, newspapers and proprietors haven’t figured out how to make journalism pay.”

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.

LRB Blog: Project Fear

Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said.

With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy. One poll at the beginning of September gave the No side a 30 per cent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a Yes vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

One reason for the variation in the polls may be that for most Scots it isn’t a straightforward question of in or out. The week before Silver’s appearance in Edinburgh a Panelbase poll commissioned by the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland found a 2 per cent lead for the No side. More interestingly, it also found a significant hunger for further devolution – and scepticism of unionists’ vague promises of more powers for Holyrood. Sixty per cent of respondents said that welfare benefits should come under the Scottish Parliament’s purview, and more than half said that oil revenues and taxation should be controlled from Holyrood. But few thought any of these powers would be devolved in the event of a No vote in 2014.

The Wings Over Scotland poll received little media attention. (There was a fluff piece in the Scottish Daily Mail about Scots being more scared of a Tory government than space monsters.) More powers for Holyrood – the so-called ‘devo-max’ option that most Scots would prefer to either independence or the status quo – is a conversation few in Scottish politics want to have. Yes Scotland is wary of appearing as defeatist twelve months before a referendum that many have waited a lifetime for; the Better Together campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of unionist opinion, some of it opposed to any devolution at all. ‘The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored,’ according to the former Lord Provost of Glasgow Michael Kelly.

Few people would bet on a vote in favour of independence – one Glaswegian punter recently wagered £200,000 on a No in 2014 at odds as short as 1/6 – but unionism is less ascendant than (some) polls suggest. Better Together’s awkward alliance of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties will come under greater pressure as the 2015 general election approaches. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour, anxious to distance itself from the unpopular coalition parties, started a separate campaign for a No vote, United with Labour.

Better Together’s negative campaigning may also backfire. In recent months, they have warned that independence would bring checkpoints at the border, mobile phone roaming charges south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the deportation south of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Privately the official No campaign is said to refer to itself as ‘Project Fear’. ‘Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here,’ the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish has said. ‘Scots don’t like to be talked to like idiots and there has been a constant haranguing of Scots by Westminster in terms of the type of campaign being run. This could create a backlash as Scots want to know what vision of Scotland within the Union the Unionists are campaigning for. If there’s another year of this people will start to rebel.’

– See more at:

Who Owns Scotland?

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners in Scotland, recently released a promotional video to tie in with its submission to the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group. The ten-minute film opens with a reassurance from Luke Borwick, the group’s chairman, that Scotland’s landowners aren’t all plutocrats: ‘The vast majority of our members are medium and small owner occupiers.’ As he speaks, the film cuts to shots of a couple strolling beside a massive country pile and an inebriated dinner party. This is Roshven House. Set on 50 acres near Fort William, Roshven is available to rent (for £11,000 a week).

Unusually for a PR video, what the various gilet-clad representatives do say is often as interesting as what they don’t. John Glen, the CEO of Buccleuch Estates, says that Scottish Land and Estates’ members ‘manage a considerable amount of natural resources’. He’s right: between them, the 2500 members may own as much as three-quarters of the land in Scotland. (Buccleuch alone controls around 250,000 acres.) In the clip that follows, Glen rails against youth unemployment (‘the biggest challenge facing us today’). A series of job titles flash on the screen: ‘Mechanic’, ‘Shepherd’, ‘Ghillie’ and, in larger letters in the centre of the frame, ‘Finance Assistant’.

Andrew Bradford, of the Kincardine Estate, makes a shaky case for the efficiency of private landowners in meeting the housing needs of Scotland’s rural population. Landowners ‘can integrate the maintenance of housing’ with other operations such as farming and forestry, he says, ‘so that the chap who is just down there mending a house today might be involved in repairing a fence tomorrow’. Around eight minutes in, Borwick urges the viewer to forget the ‘historic events that have happened, particularly up in the Highlands’ (the Clearances, presumably). ‘What matters now is the future of the Scottish rural sector.’

The future of the rural sector is, in part, the focus of the Land Reform Review Group. Alex Salmond announced the creation of the three-member panel to examine land reform last summer after a meeting of the Scottish government cabinet in Skye. Around 500 submissions have been made so far, but the Scottish government won’t make any evidence public until the final report is published next year.

Scotland has ‘a particularly concentrated pattern of land ownership’, according to Andy Wightman, a land reform activist and the author of The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It). ‘Scotland is rather like pre-1880 Ireland.’ The Land Reform Review Group is unlikely to change this greatly. The body includes prominent, longstanding voices in favour of land reform (most notably Highlands historian professor James Hunter) but its report is due to appear next April, when it will probably be reduced to a couple of short-lived, referendum-inflected soundbites.

Towards the end of the film, Borwick adduces ‘independent research’ in support of maintaining the status quo. Conducted in 2010, this research found, among other things, a ‘general lack of awareness and knowledge of estates among the Scottish public’. That much is true: land ownership is rarely mentioned in Scottish public life. There is no significant land reform movement. Nobody from Scottish Land and Estates says it on camera, but they will be hoping it stays that way.

– See more at:

A Nation Once Again?

I wrote a long piece on Scotland’s independence referendum, with a particular focus on the Irish community in Scotland, for the Sunday Business Post. Here it is:

Standing on the banks of the River Clyde, at the Broomielaw in Glasgow, on a warm summer’s day it is hard to believe that this was once one of the busiest quaysides in the British Empire. There are no ships, and few people. A handful of stray tourists take pictures beside the imposing cast iron mooring posts.

On these same mooring posts, unused today, boats from across the world would once have been tied up. Many were steamboats laden with passengers that came from across the Irish Sea: in the 19th century the Broomielaw was scene of one of the largest migrations in the history of Britain, or Ireland. With little or no belongings thousands of Irish emigrants would have walked the hundred metres or so from the teeming dock to the centre of Glasgow, and, from there, to a new life in industrial revolution Scotland.
paddlesteamers, broomielaw, 1890 MI_4011_4681
Half a million Scots of Irish descent – and the rest of the country’s population of some five million – could be about to embark on another journey. Although this time without going anywhere.

Next September, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on independence. A ‘yes’ vote will spell the end for the three centuries-old Act of Union and usher in the birth of a new Scottish state.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s pugnacious First Minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party, has said he is ‘confident’ of winning next year’s vote. Opinion polls suggest he faces an uphill battle – support for independence rarely rises above 30 per cent. All the main UK parties, including Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, are firmly against the prospect of Britain breaking up. ‘Better Together’, a cross-party campaign calling for a ‘no vote in 2014, has been formed, headed by former Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling.

Scotland does not feel like a country riven by political rancour. Beyond the occasional saltire on a flagpole, or ‘Yes Scotland’ bumper sticker, there are few overt manifestations of nationalism, or unionism, on the streets of Glasgow. This is not Belfast, with its atavistic politics and exaggerated public displays of fealty, but surface appearances belie deep divisions between supporters and opponents of Scottish independence. And there are many Irish-Scots on both sides of the debate.

‘I don’t think economically or socially independence is a good idea,’ Michael Mahon, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Uddingston and Bellshill, a constituency on he outskirts Glasgow with a high concentration of Scots of Irish descent. ‘I say that not because I am an Irish Catholic but because I represent a constituency that I think would be better off in the United Kingdom.’

A former welder, with a broad chest and an easy manner, McMahon speaks fondly of growing up in an Irish household in a mining town in Lanarkshire: ‘It was Irish music, Irish culture. We’d celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, not St. Andrew’s Day’. However, this enthusiasm for all things Irish did not extend to politics. ‘I don’t see this connection between Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism that some people do. I just don’t get it.’

When we meet for coffee in an upmarket hotel overlooking George Square, Glasgow’s main civic space, McMahon is sporting a ‘United with Labour’ pin on his lapel. United with Labour is another platform advocating a ‘no’ vote, created by the Scottish Labour Party, many of whom are uncomfortable sharing a stage with Conservatives in Better Together. The Tories remain deeply unpopular in Scotland where the legacy of Margaret Thatcher remains a toxic one: there is just a solitary Conservative member of parliament north of Hadrian’s Wall.

celticIf Michael McMahon represents Scotland’s established Irish community, Feargal Dalton is the face of the fluid new generation. Born in Monaghan and raised in Dublin, Dalton came to Scotland in his 20s, as a member of the British armed forces. Dalton, 40, retired from the services in 2010, and last year was elected as the SNP representative for Partick on Glasgow City Council.

‘Like many immigrants to Scotland, I quickly began to ask myself why wasn’t Scotland in full control of its own affairs. With this in mind, I looked at the political parties and policies on offer and voted SNP at the first Holyrood election and every subsequent election,’ Dalton, who became a physics teacher after leaving the armed forces three years ago, says.

‘It wasn’t until I became a husband and father in 2006 that I joined the SNP. Having now established roots in Scotland, its future became a very real and personal issue. Like most parents, I want what’s best for my children. A very simply but significant part of that, is to grow up in a country that has the confidence to govern itself.’

Independence, Dalton says, ‘will give Scotland greater control over its economic future. This will allow Scotland to become more prosperous but a fully sovereign Scottish parliament will also allow us to build a fairer Scotland.’

That Scotland is seriously talking about independence at all can, at times, seem remarkable. Back in 1995, George Robertson, then Labour shadow secretary of state for Scotland, confidently predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson was trying to appease sceptical unionists and it looked, for a time, as if he was right. Labour dominated the first decade after devolution in 1997.

But all that changed in 2007, when the SNP won a narrow victory in elections to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. Then, in 2010, a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in London, despite the Labour voting actually increasing in Scotland. The following year Alex Salmond’s party surprised everyone – including themselves – by achieving the seemingly impossible, an overall majority in the Edinburgh parliament and, with it, a mandate for a referendum on the party’s flagship policy, independence.

The SNP’s success is down, in part, to an ability to attract the Irish Catholic vote that was once the bedrock of the Scottish Labour party, says Peter Lynch, a lecturer in history at Stirling University and an expert on Scottish politics. ‘At the last couple of elections you had a lot of Catholics voting for the SNP. At the 2011 it was a huge number, more than voted for Labour’.

‘Twenty years ago what would divide the SNP and Labour was more Catholics voting for Labour but the religious thing is gone now,’ said Dr Lynch. This ‘religious thing’ was the fear among Irish Scots that Scottish nationalism was inherently anti-Catholic. It was a not a baseless concern: in the early days of the Scottish National Party (which was formed in 1934 by a merger of two smaller nationalist parties) some leading lights did espouse anti-Catholicism.Andrew Dewar Gibb, who held a as senior office within the SNP, wrote in overtly racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse.

Earlier this year, firebrand leftwinger George Galloway warned Catholics in Scotland to ‘be careful what they wished for’ in the 2014 referendum. Galloway was a Glasgow Labour MP for almost 20 years, but is now better known for his turns on Big Brother and in front of the US senate. His comments were roundly critcised as out of touch and out of date.

‘I’d go so far as to say that the SNP is now a more natural home for the Irish community in Scotland. The Labour party has taken the Irish Catholic vote for granted and given them nothing in return,’ says Kevin McKenna, former executive editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. The SNP has pledged to support Catholic schools as long as they are wanted, a key concern of the Irish community in Scotland. ‘You get the impression that the SNP are trying to reach out to the Catholic community in Scotland,’ says Kevin McKenna. Alex Salmond has spoken regularly of the important role of the Catholic Church in Scottish life, although he has clashed with the hierarchy over his support for gay marriage.

‘It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of Irish Catholics are considering trading their loyalties from Labour to the SNP, although whether what would result in a vote for independence is another matter,’ says McKenna, whose great grandparents came from county Waterford at the start of the 20h century.

In January, McKenna caused a stir when he wrote in his weekly column in the Scottish edition of the Observer that the union with England becomes ‘more difficult to support’ with ‘each passing week’. The article was shared almost 15,000 times on Facebook.

‘Afterwards people said ‘why have you turned into a nationalist’. I said, ‘I haven’t’. I could find myself voting for Scottish independence but I’ll never be a Scottish nationalist. For me Scottish nationalism is quite far away from the internationalism I’ve been brought up to embrace. We’ve the chance to bring those international values into an independent Scotland, values that England seems to be moving further and further away from.’

One of the more curious aspects of debates about Scottish nationalism is how rarely debate is framed in terms of ‘identity’. In some respects the call for Scottish independence does resemble the small state nationalism of the late 19thand early 20th century – a desire for ethnic self-determination that mobilised nationalists in Dublin, Belgrade, Warsaw and myriad cities, towns and villages across Europe. And, for some Scots independence is undoubtedly about creating a ‘Scottish state’, in counterpose to an England-dominated United Kingdom. But most independence supporters cite political, not ethnic, differences to explain their desire to leave the union.

‘Lots of Scottish people aren’t bothered about identity in an ethnic sense. It’s not a vote winner. Salmond always talks about ‘the people of Scotland’, the people who live here, not ‘the Scots’,’ says Peter Lynch. ‘The identity you are talking about is shared political values and ideology.’

The electoral geography of Britain has changed enormously since 1955, when the Conservatives won a majority north of the border in a general electkon. Now more than three-quarters of Scots vote for centre-left political parties – the SNP and Labour – while England, particularly the southeast, votes Tory. This pattern, initiated in the 1960s, accelerated under Mrs Thatcher, as Scotland’s industrial heartlands rusted and the democratic deficit that saw Scotland return swathes of Labour MPs to a Conservative-dominated Parliament in London widened into a yawning chasm. Nowadays in Scotland ‘Tory’ is more likely to be used as a putdown than as a badge of political affiliation.

The breadth of these political variations has increased since Dave Cameron came to office in 2010. Controversial welfare reforms and privatisations, particularly of the National Health Service, have been deeply unpopular with many Scottish voters. London is often accused of being out of touch with the problems of post-industrial Scotland: unemployment, drug addiction, an under-developed private sector. Meanwhile, the SNP government at Holyrood has used policy to attempt to differentiate itself from Westminster: refusing to levy tuition fees on Scottish university students, introducing free prescriptions and pledging to ring fence the NHS as a wholly public service.

The Scottish government’s long-term ability to maintain a generous welfare state has been called into question – especially without tax hikes – but its commitment to a more expansive state reflects a growing disparity between the political cultures on both sides of the border.

‘In Scotland there is a huge middle and working class social democratic electorate who believe that beating up the poor is bad, that the sick should be protected,’ said Dr Lynch. ‘That’s a really mainstream broad category that 80 per cent or more of the voters will find attractive and they are themes that Yes (Scotland) will focus on in the referendum campaign.’

These are themes that chime with Danny Boyle, a 27-year-old community worker from Glasgow. Like around a third of Scots, Boyle says he has yet to make up their mind on independence, but describes himself as ‘edging towards voting yes’, primarily because of what he sees as the divergence between politics in Westminster and in Scotland.

‘I was brought up in a typical Glasgow Irish family: Catholic Church, Celtic football club, Irish music, Gaelic football,’ he says. ‘I was brought up with traditional Labour politics, solidarity and social justice.’

Boyle was initially supportive of New Labour but quickly became disenchanted over the party’s 13 years in power. ‘There was huge excitement in 1997 (when Tony Blair won a landslide) but what actually transpired was the broadening of the gap between the rich and the poor, the illegal war in Iraq, the deregulation of the banks.’

Although his parents were ‘solid Labour voters’, Boyle says that for the younger generation of Irish Scots nationalism is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. ‘The experience of my parents with Scottish nationalism and the SNP 30 years ago was vastly different to now,’ he says. ‘Much of what was happening then was tied up to what was going on in the North of Ireland.’

The cessation of violence in Northern Ireland has certainly made it easier for Scottish nationalists to sell a vision of a stable independent Scotland where Protestants and Catholics (the vast majority of whom are of Irish descent) could co-existence peaceably. The Orange Order in Scotland are no longer the force they once were, although several thousand attended the annual ‘Orange Walk’ which was held in Glasgow city centre last weekend.

Sectarianism remains part of life for many, particularly around Glasgow’s footballing Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers. But there seems little fear in the Irish community that an independent Scotland would presage a rise in religious intolerance. ‘Sectarianism is a massive problem but I don’t think independence would make that worse. It will still be there whether we are in the union or independent,’ says Paul Cruikshank, a Catholic Glasgow law student.

Cruikshank intends to vote ‘no’ next year, partly because he fears that independence could make Scotland more insular and parochial. ‘There is a concern that if we were an independent country we would fall back on the short-bread tin image of ourselves – the haggis, whisky, Robert Burns.’

‘Most of my family are definitely voting no’ in next year’s referendum, says Cruikshank, who is a Labour party member. The cultural ties that bind Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly northern England, are among the main reasons for staying in the union, he says.

‘The north of Scotland and the south of England are very different places but the further south you go in Scotland and the more north you go in England, the more similarity there is culturally.

‘I don’t see myself as any different to another 20-year-old from another industrial city in the north of England.’

Labour MSP Michael McMahon shares this view. ‘When I was a union rep I would go to conferences across the UK and meet people from the same background as me from Newcastle, from Birmingham, from Liverpool, from London. I thought ‘I have more in common with these guys that with a Gaelic speaking crofter from the Western Isles’.’

The Better Together campaign has placed a heavy emphasis on this shared sense of British identity. The recent royal celebrations and last summer’s London Olympics seemed to elevate Britishness across the UK. Preliminary polling of younger Scottish voters – 16 and 17 year olds will have a vote in next year’s referendum, under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement between Cameron and Salmond – found that many feel a stronger affinity with Britain and Britishness.

Irish Scots might be assumed to have little investment in this conception of Britishness, but Peter Lynch thinks there are aspects of British identity that could appeal to the Irish community. ‘What Irish Scots are comfortable with are aspects of Britishness around welfare policy, defence, issues like that,’ he said. ‘If you can tap into those socio-economic issues, Britishness could be a good constituency for the Irish.’

Yes supporter Colette Campbell is less convinced. ‘I don’t think there are that many people who are proud to be British, particularly in Scotland,’ says the 24-year-old mother of two. Her family traditionally voted Labour but ‘most are now swayed towards yes’.

Campbell suggests that independence could be an opportunity to improve relations between Scotland and England. ‘The relationship would be much better if we were independent, it would be two countries relating to each other.’

And what if an independent Scotland was a failure? It could rejoin the United Kingdom. ‘Some of my friends are a bit nervous that Scotland couldn’t be a successful country. But at the end of the day we could always say ‘we got it wrong’ and they could take us back,’ says Campbell.

While Scotland considers whether or not to leave the UK, Britain itself could be on the verge of a historic departure – from Europe. Battered from the right by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and his own restive Eurosceptic backbenchers, David Cameron has pledged an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union after the next general election.

While the noughties rallying cry of ‘Independence in Europe’ has been silenced, Alex Salmond senses that the prospect of an UK exit from Europe could push floating voters to the independence cause. ‘The Scotland/Europe platform was a huge advantage to the SNP in the Nineties,’ Scotland’s first minister told the New Statesman last month. ‘Because of what’s happened in Europe and the Eurozone it was becoming a negative. Now it’s swung back to being a strong positive. Scots are much more comfortable about being an independent country in a European context.’ Scotland has consistently been the most pro-European part of the UK – although even here support for the EU is running at only around 50 per cent in opinion polls.

In the event of a ‘yes’ vote next year, even opponents of the SNP seem confident that the country’s political classes would be capable of running an independent state. ‘Scotland has produced a lot of good politicians: Donald Dewar (Scotland’s inaugural first minister), (Labour leader) John Smith, who would almost certainly have been prime minister,’ says Paul Cruikshank.

‘As much as I disagree with Alex Salmond, I think he is a good politician. He has charisma and the ability to lead the country.’

Reflecting on political scandals in London, SNP councilor Feargal Dalton believes Scotland would be better served by running all its affairs locally. ‘We need look no further than Westminster with the MPs’ expenses and cash for access scandals. Holyrood has not been beset with such scandals, probably owing to its greater transparency,’ he said.

Scottish independence rarely features in public discussion in Ireland, and when it does its imbued with a degree of skepticism. Dalton attributes this weariness on the part of his compatriots to Ireland having reached ‘established country cynical stage’.

‘I have had taxi drivers in Ireland and people down the pub saying ‘why don’t you stay as you are’. That’s Ok when you have a written constitution, when you can vote off Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. We don’t have that,’ he said.

Peter Lynch sees another reason for Irish misgivings about a new independent state on its doorstep. ‘Irish politicians will probably want a ‘no’ vote because we are going to be trouble for them in terms of international trade and European institutions,’ he said.

Ireland has certainly influenced aspects of Scottish nationalist thinking. In 2006, Alex Salmond called on Scotland to join ‘Northern Europe’s arc of prosperity’, alongside ‘Ireland to our west, Iceland to our north and Norway to our east’. The SNP have abandoned talk of Irish success in the wake of the crash, but nationalists still look across the Irish Sea for policy proposals. Take corporation tax. Salmond recently announced that in an independent Scotland corporation tax would be just 17 per cent, lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Economic questions still remain about an independent Scotland. What currency would it use? How would it fund itself? The Treasury in London has warned that an independent Scotland, bereft of Westminster subsidies, would suffer financially. Nationalists respond by citing the country’s oil reserves – around 90 per cent of North Sea oil is in Scottish waters – and potential in areas such as renewable energy.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, says journalist Kevin McKenna. ‘I simply don’t believe that we would become a medieval, third world country, as the no side are depicting. But I don’t believe the nationalist rhetoric that we would become like the Nordic states,’ he said.

‘I suspect there won’t be that much difference, economically, so why wouldn’t you want your country to be independent?’

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 14 July, 2013.