Scots do battle of head and heart

By Catherine Field

The campaign to separate from London appears to have about 43 per cent support, though significantly more in the Highlands. Photo / AP
The campaign to separate from London appears to have about 43 per cent support, though significantly more in the Highlands. Photo / AP

In just a few weeks, three centuries of British history will be laid on the line when voters in Scotland decide whether their country should remain in the United Kingdom or become independent.

The September 18 referendum is the outcome of decades of campaigning by Scottish nationalists, who believe breaking away from the UK will heal the wounds of abusive and indifferent rule from Westminster and propel Scotland's 5.3 million citizens towards greater freedom and social equality.

Touching partly on resentment towards the English dating back more than seven centuries, the message resonates powerfully for many voters.

But others are less convinced and some are quite opposed. They fear independence would damage Scotland's economy - and the most pessimistic predict an independent Scotland would become a kilts-and-shortbread backwater of Europe.

On the face of it, the "No" campaigners will be able to raise a brimming glass of single malt to toast their success.

The latest poll of 1000 voters by the survey group YouGov found 57 per cent of those expressing an intention to vote would back the Union, while 43 per cent supported independence.

But this 14-point lead masks recent gains into the large bloc of undecided voters by the "Yes" campaign, helped by the feel-good factor of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Some pollsters suggest the "No" lead could be as small as four to six percentage points.

One big unknown is how the army of young voters will cast their ballot. Exceptionally, in a British election, people who are aged at least 16, rather than the traditional 18, will be allowed to vote in the referendum.

Pro-independence sentiment seems to run especially high in the Highlands, where there remains a deep-seated loathing for the "Clearances" - the expulsion of subsistence farmers to make way for large-scale sheep farms after Scotland's failed revolt against England in 1745. Many of their descendants live today in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.

"The feelings around here are strong. I would say that around here, at least three-quarters of the people, possibly 80 per cent, will be voting for independence," said Helen Rutherford, a resident on the Isle of Mull, part of the Inner Hebrides islands on the rugged, wind-swept western coast.

The saltire - the white diagonal cross on a blue background that is Scotland's national flag - is prominent on the main street of the island's principal town, the tiny, picturesque port of Tobermory.

English-born, but with a Scottish father and Scottish husband, Rutherford expressed sympathy for the catastrophe wreaked upon Scotland after Bonnie Prince Charlie, a descendant of the Stuart dynasty, failed to reclaim the crown. The clan system was destroyed, English was imposed over Gaelic and traditional Highland dress was outlawed.

But Rutherford said she was angry and "dumbfounded" by the vote itself. Scotland, she said, already has widespread autonomy under a Parliament set up in 1999, but its economy depends on trade with the rest of the United Kingdom and handouts from the UK Government. According to figures for 2009-10, Scottish citizens received a de-facto subsidy - the gap between UK public spending in Scotland and Scotland's contributions to the UK public purse - of 3150 ($6300) per head.

"We've got pretty much everything we need. Why take the risk?" asked Rutherford, 52. "Who's going to pay for the CalMac ferries?" she added, referring to the local link to the mainland run by the Caledonian MacBrayne company. Mull's permanent population is only 2800, although it increases several-fold in the summer months, which means the ferry service is heavily subsidised the rest of the year.

The answer to such questions, according to the charismatic leader of the independence campaign, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond, is revenue from oil and gas.

Once Scotland becomes independent from the rest of the UK, it will be able to wrest from Westminster the tax revenue from the hydrocarbon flows from what will be its territorial waters in the North Sea.

The money, says Salmond, 59, will be used to maintain Scotland's excellent higher education - university is free for residents of Scotland, whereas in England, university fees cost up to 9000 annually for British and European Union residents - and address disparities in health and poverty that he says have been ignored by rule from London.

Yet estimates for the North Sea bounty vary hugely.

An independent agency, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), says oil production will fall sharply in the coming years as the field matures. Tax revenue from oil and gas would raise around 61.6 billion between 2013-14 and 2040-41, it says, downgrading a previous estimate of 82.2 billion.

The SNP-led Government in Edinburgh says other estimates put the tax take as high as 356 billion over this period, provided oil companies are given fiscal incentives to develop marginal or deep-water fields - a balancing act that the Treasury in London says is unfeasible if spending in Scotland is supposed to rise at the same time.

It is on such uncertainties that the "No" campaign, with Scottish-accented politicians as the figureheads, is focusing its efforts.

The weakest perceived point in Salmond's defence is what currency his projected Scotland would have.

Salmond has ruled out adopting the euro or having an independent Scottish currency; instead, it would continue with sterling, which is run by the Bank of England. Scotland would be given a say because it would be in the rest of the UK's interest to do so, according to Salmond's argument, which is rubbished by London and the "Better Together" campaign.

"An 8-year-old can tell you what Scotland's capital and flag is. But you can't tell us what Scotland's currency will be," the "No" campaign's leader, former Labour Treasury Minister Alistair Darling, said in a TV debate this month.

The Union is backed by all the main parties in Westminster, which have also dangled the offer of more self-rule even if the "No" vote prevails.

It is also endorsed by a roster of more than 200 celebrities, such as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, David Bowie, Sir Mick Jagger, Judi Dench, football manager Sir Alex Ferguson and TV biologist Sir David Attenborough. The "Yes" vote is backed by Sir Sean Connery and comedian Frankie Boyle.

Scotland the brave

• Scotland gained independence in 1314, after Robert the Bruce defeated the English army at the Battle of Bannockburn.

• Scotland had its own monarch until 1603. After Elizabeth I died, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, ruling both countries.

• The Kingdom of Scotland remained as an independent state until May 1, 1707, when the Acts of Union joined it with England, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

• Since July 1, 1999, Scotland has had its own Parliament, for the first time since 1707.

• The total population is around 5.2 million, around 8.5 per cent of the UK's population.

The motto of Scotland is "Nemo me impune lacessit", or: "No one provokes me with impunity". It is used by the Order of the Thistle and on later versions of the Royal coat of arms.

- NZ Herald

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