For 307 years, Scotland has helped put the “united” in the United Kingdom.
That could change Sept. 18, as Scottish voters head to the polls to decide whether the nation should declare independence and break away from England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
It’s a question that evokes a historic rivalry and images from Scotland’s rich history, such as William Wallace leading an uprising against English occupation in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
Proponents of separation, though, say it’s a more modern tale. Scotland is a country booming with oil reserves, ready to conduct its own affairs, they contend. There’s growing frustration among many in the left-of-center country who say the U.K.’s government, based at Westminster Palace in London, began moving to the right with the election of Margaret Thatcher and has not looked back.
“It’s not about teary-eyed Scots yearning for ancient soil, it’s about hoping to live in a civilized, caring society, and we’ve given up all hope we can do that with Westminster,” said Keith Aitchison, 67, a retired civil servant who volunteers at a busy pro-independence campaign office in Inverness. “Our two nations have moved apart.”
Yet critics – including the U.K. government led by British Prime Minister David Cameron – argue that Scotland benefits from the union and challenge the wisdom and the cost of going it alone. They’ve raised questions about what would happen if Westminster prevented an independent Scotland from using its currency, the British pound.
“We’ve been united for so long and it works,” said Laraine Johnston of Edinburgh, catching one of several shows at the recent Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the city’s famed performing arts showcase. “I prefer it together. I’m proud to be Scottish and I’m proud to be part of the U.K. I’m not sure people realize how entwined we are and what the costs would be for a divorce.”
Polls suggest a plurality of Scots agree with Johnston. But momentum appears to be with the nationalists, and the vote may be closer than many expected, said Richard Whitman, a European political expert at the University of Kent in England. A poll this week showed voters split 48 percent to 42 percent against independence, the 6 percentage point lead down from 22 in early August.
Divorce would not cripple the United Kingdom – Scotland represents just a small percentage of its population – but “third-party perception will be that the U.K. is greatly diminished,” Whitman said. It could lose clout on the world stage, at the United Nations Security Council and in the European Union.
Severance likely would cost Cameron his position, as he’d be considered “the man who lost Scotland,” Whitman said. Cameron conceded early in the debate that Scotland could stand on its own – words that the “Yes” campaign seized on to help the case for independence _ though Cameron argued that it was better off staying in the U.K.
The U.S. has said it’s neutral in the debate, but President Barack Obama in June made it clear the administration wants Scotland in the U.K., even as he said the decision was up to the Scottish people.
“We obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united and an effective partner,” Obama said, speaking at a press conference in Brussels with Cameron at his side.
Among the shared interests has been decades of cooperation on nuclear weapons, which could be affected by independence. Much of the U.K.’s nuclear weapons arsenal, including four submarines that carry nuclear-armed Trident missiles, is housed in Scotland. But the Scottish National Party, which champions the referendum, wants the weapons removed.
Within Scotland, the debate has become all encompassing: Activists have held town halls across the country, in tiny villages and large cities. Two televised debates have drawn considerable interest, and signs of the campaign _ pro-independence “Yes” and anti-referendum “Better Together” _ are everywhere, even in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands.
Scottish actor Peter Capaldi tucked an independence joke into his much anticipated debut as “Doctor Who,” cracking in the BBC science fiction show that his considerable eyebrows “probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”
Other celebrities have delivered pleas: “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling has urged unity, as have Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger and singer David Bowie. But Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most prominent historian, has endorsed independence. The Scottish Parliament has shown it can govern “and it represents a Scottish people who are wedded to a social democratic agenda,” he told the British newspaper The Observer.
Across Scotland, the campaigns have established dueling storefronts: Better Together offers pens and faux airline boarding passes: “Non-refundable,” the tickets say, warning that independence, once declared, is irreversible. The price of going it alone: “Unknown.”
The Yes movement has struck a chord with other regions in Europe looking to go it alone, including Catalonians in Spain, who hope to hold their own independence vote in November.
“We hope Scotland works because maybe it would be a good sign for us,” says Jaume Artes, a vacationing Catalonian who visited the Yes office in Inverness.
At times, the debate has become heated. Signs have been defaced. Eggs have been tossed. “No” voters say they’ve been accused of lacking sufficient patriotism. “Yes” voters say they’re accused of painting too rosy a picture of an independent Scotland.
Scotland’s national dish _ haggis, a blend of organ meats traditionally encased in a sheep’s stomach _ has even been part of the fray as Scots questioned whether the U.K.’s decision to use its clout to help convince the U.S. to overturn a ban on haggis imports was aimed at swaying Scottish votes to stick with the union.
There are fears, too, that if independence is soundly defeated, Westminster politicians will backtrack on promises made to give Scotland greater autonomy – a process known as devolution that got its start in 1979 with a referendum vote.
Popular Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith warned the vote has split the country.
“It’s a sad situation that Scotland has become so divided,” he told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Caoimhe Simpson has heard all the arguments but was still undecided as she sat with friends at Gellions, an Inverness pub. Behind her, where bands kick into Scottish folk songs, a banner proclaimed: “Now’s the day, Now’s the hour: 18 Sept 2014. Scotland’s date with Destiny” – a reference to the fabled Stone of Destiny, which played a central role in the coronation of Scottish kings and was later coveted by both the Scottish and the English.
Simpson, 19, a recent college graduate who works as a beauty therapist, takes great pride in her Scottish heritage and is convinced that Scottish priorities, such as helping the poor, get short shrift from Westminster.
But she says she’s worried voters are being asked to take too much of a leap of faith.
“I want to believe as an independent nation we’ll be better,” she said. “But we just don’t know.”