It was raining Monday as V.O. Devlin took his stand for Scottish freedom, seated in his coffee shop on Leith Walk, Edinburgh’s longest street, surrounded by banners and stickers urging “yes” on the Thursday’s vote on independence from the United Kingdom.
His stance is, he admits, a bit less dramatic than the William Wallace cry of “Freedom!” which in the movie “Braveheart” was shown to echo through the land while the iconic Scottish warrior was being hanged, drawn and quartered. But, Devlin notes, it shares a bond.
“An independent Scotland is inevitable,” Devlin, 50, said. “The Union is doomed. Still, I’ll be crushed if our bid for independence fails this time. I’d rather our freedom come sooner, rather than later.”
A recent flurry of polls indicates that about half his countrymen agree _ and half disagree _ with him. With only days remaining before Scottish voters decide whether to dissolve a 307-year-old union with the rest of Great Britain, all that’s really clear about the upcoming vote is that this nation of whisky, kilts and lochs is deeply divided. There are independent polls indicating a race too close to call, others indicating “yes” winning by a wide margin and still others indicating “no” will win comfortably.
Maybe that degree of confusion makes sense. On one level, the vote for Scottish independence is as simple as a referendum gets: Yes or no. But Thursday, when an expected record number of Scots make their way to the polls, the decision will be anything but simple.
Scots favoring independence claim that the vast North Sea oil wealth will support their new status. They point to a divergence with English politics that became glaringly obvious during the years of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative governments and has remained since.
Those who back remaining in a union that was first ratified in 1707 say the lands are too deeply intertwined to be easily separated. Sure, Scots will keep their oil, but the supply is running out and they will lose their currency (the British pound), their trading status (an independent Scotland might not be welcomed in the European Union), and their security (NATO membership for an independent Scotland is not guaranteed, either).
There are newspaper stories saying that independent Scots would have to pay more for groceries, and others that say they’d pay less for higher education. Other stories claim that grocery prices would remain stable, but the cost of higher education would go up. Scotland would benefit from not sending taxes to the rest of the United Kingdom. Or it wouldn’t, because it receives more in benefits than it pays in taxes.
Pro-independence supporters cite reports that there are 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil for Scotland in the North Sea. The pro-union camp cites different reports indicating that there are only 10 billion recoverable barrels in those wells.
Even the stars are divided. Soccer player David Beckham and “Harry Potter” author J.K Rowling urge voters to keep the union. Movie actor Sean Connery and “Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh urge voters to pick independence.
Douglas Smith, nearing retirement age in Edinburgh, said the uncertainty is too much for him, and he’ll certainly be voting no.
“Maybe everything would be fine, but maybe it would take a couple years to sort out, and at 63 years old, where would I be then?” he said. “I admit mine is a selfish vote, but I’m worried.”
Finn Watson admits that at 22, he’s not paid enough attention to politics in the past. But he notes the current austerity in his land and says, “I’ll be voting ‘yes.’ Any change has got to be for the better.”
Graham Marshall, 67, of Edinburgh, can’t stop smiling when he talks about independence. He has, he said, been volunteering in political campaigns for 40 years and dreaming of this week.
“To be only days away from a dream is almost too much,” he said. “But you can see from the division even that independence will win, eventually. There’s a simple right and wrong in this debate, and Scottish independence is simply right.”
Those favoring independence and union both admit that the romance of this election is entirely in the independence camp. After all, the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 read, in part, “for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
But the “no” voters insist that the practical side favors their position. Again, little is definite, though much is ominous.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said in a February interview with the BBC that it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for an independent Scotland to join the EU. Admission to the EU requires a unanimous vote by other members, and Spain is fighting against the possible separation of Catalonia in November. Recently, more than a million independence supporters turned out in Barcelona. Spain hardly would favor providing them with an encouraging precedent.
Arnout Mijs, an expert on the EU at the Dutch Clingendael Institute think tank, said there are other European nations besides Spain worried about the notion of breakaway regions. The Belgians have Flanders. Italy is deeply divided north and south. And the list goes on. The fear, for many current nations, is that while finding common ground is difficult for 28 generally genial nations, it might be impossible if they add breakaway nations, who by definition are at odds with at least one member state.
“Europe would need a new model,” he said. “The worry would be that this could be a path back to the decentralization of Europe. That does not offer much support towards Scottish independence.”
David Folkerts-Landau, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank and a member of the bank’s executive committee, was quoted in the Times of London: “Why anyone would want to exit a successful economic and political union with a G5 country, a union which another part of Europe so desperately seeks to emulate, to go it alone _ for the benefit of what exactly? _ is incomprehensible.”
The uncertainty crests in the discussion about what money an independent Scotland would use. George Osborne, the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer, the British government’s top economic and financial official, backed up by the three main political parties in the British Parliament, said there won’t be a currency union with Scotland, meaning Scotland would either have to abandon the British pound or use a currency over which it has no control. Scottish independence supporters, from Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the independence effort, say that’s simply scare mongering, and the remaining parts of the United Kingdom would want a currency union.
Sarah Bettie Smith, 29, was dancing on the streets of Edinburgh Monday, despite the rain, hoping to inspire voters to back independence. She said there have been some unpleasant moments in this campaign. But Scots will vote. An amazing 97 percent of eligible voters have registered to vote; 16-year-olds are eligible for this election.
“I want to see the Scottish people empowered,” she said. “I want to see that democracy matters. I guess we’ll find out if it does on Thursday.”