Scotland decides: independence day or part of the union?

Scotland’s pro-independence and pro-union campaigners both claim to be the true custodians of the national identity. Today, as millions go to the polls, only one side can win

Yes campaigners holding Scottish flags gather for a rally in Glasgow on Wednesday. Paul Hackett / Reuters
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GLASGOW // The Union Jacks flying from the balconies of Edinburgh’s grand New Town declare that it’s possible to be proudly Scottish and British. Around the fields of the Scotland’s border region, huge purple No Thanks signs have sprouted up beside the crops while in Glasgow and Dundee, the working class cities, Yes has won the windows.

What neither side is prepared to concede, however, is ownership of nationality. Both camps identify themselves as ferociously Scottish and say their voting intentions are based on a desire for the best for the nation.

For those unfamiliar with the UK’s political landscape, the alliances thrown up by the referendum are enough to bring on a migraine. Those in favour of independence are the Scottish National Party (SNP), in power at the devolved Scottish parliament since 2011. They are joined in a broad-based coalition with the Green Party, various independent-minded Labour politicians and, crucially, a groundswell of non-affiliated people of all ages and from across the political spectrum.

For the SNP the clue is in the name: independence has been the raison d’être since its formation in 1934. Others have come to Yes from very different positions. Many on the left are openly suspicious of nationalism. They are social democrats, disillusioned by the deindustrialisation of Scotland over the last 30 years, alienated by the austerity agenda instigated by the Conservative government in Westminster in response to fiscal mismanagement by the previous Labour administration. None of the mainstream parties are offering them the type of Scotland they want to live in; the referendum offers an opportunity to set this up, possibly along the Scandinavian model, for themselves.

The No campaign, officially called Better Together, is a different kind of coalition. Fronted by Alistair Darling, chancellor of the exchequer in the last Labour government, it is a marriage of convenience of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, backed by deep-pocketed Harry Potter author J K Rowling, HSBC chairman Douglas Flint and oil trader Ian Taylor. It also has high-profile support outwith Scotland: the footballer David Beckham, comedian Eddie Izzard, pop star-turned-campaigner Bob Geldof.

Many Scots who live south of the border are enraged that they have no say in the constitutional future of the country with which they still strongly identify: only people who are resident in Scotland are eligible to vote. There is more to being Scottish than having a particular postcode.

But last-minute joint interventions from the three main political parties, pledging further powers for Scotland in the event of a No vote, congregating in London to love-bomb Scots into staying in the union, have added to the impression that the establishment is panicking. Nothing makes an underdog nation such as Scotland, the UK’s truculent younger sibling with a permanent chip on its shoulder, want something more than the grown-ups saying that it’s strictly forbidden.

Yes voters, whether nationalists or not, argue that the country, which always supports Labour in UK elections, has had a raw deal from a succession of governments for which it did not vote. (There is even a strand of Scottish Conservatives who are convinced that independence will revitalise the party, currently reduced to a rump.) A free Scotland per se is not the heart’s desire of many of those who will vote Yes on Thursday. They want to live in a country that is not ruled from 600 kilometres south, in an economy that is not skewed towards the housing boom and investment banker culture of London. This is a hard point for the No campaign to refute. On a televised debate, Alistair Darling was floored when a young woman asked him: if we are better together, why are we not better together now?

Yet, in the event of a Yes vote, the rest of the world may well ask what all the fuss was about. An independent Scotland will look almost identical to the Scotland that was part of the UK. The queen will still be head of state. English will still be the national language and sterling the national currency, in the short term at least. The Trident nuclear submarines currently based at Faslane on the River Clyde will not be loaded on to flatbed trucks and driven south to England on Friday morning. And while Labour leader Ed Miliband has raised the prospect of border guards, they are unlikely to be deployed immediately.

The job of persuading the Bank of England to enter into a currency union and talking the EU into accepting Scotland as a full member will fall to the SNP government, in power until 2016. Its leader, Alex Salmond, is currently the head of the devolved Scottish government and would become the leader of the new nation state.

Famous for looking smug, if the vote goes in his favour, he will have much to be smug about. Scotland has oil reserves, plus thriving whisky, tourism, biotechnology and gaming sectors. It is in a strategically important position – facing the North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Seas, also known as Western Europe’s backdoor – when it’s time to talk about defence. One of Yes’s key campaign claims is that an independent Scotland would be the 14th-richest country in the world, better off than France, China and the rest of the UK.

How will Mr Salmond, an astute politician who nevertheless uses mysterious phrases such as “hee haw” (it means “nothing”), guffaws at inappropriate moments and is seen by many of his own electorate as bumptious, bullying and borderline obnoxious, fare on the global stage? They might just be about to find out.