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Fergus Henderson bounds up the stairs of a housing block in Edinburgh’s deprived Muirhouse estate, his energy undimmed by weeks of intense campaigning for a Yes vote in Scotland’s independence campaign. This month’s referendum, the software engineer tells residents, is a choice between a more equal Scotland run by the people who live in it and continued rule by a distant and unsympathetic Westminster elite.
“If you think a bunch of toffs from Eton will make better decisions for us, then vote No,” he says, referring to the elite school attended by David Cameron, the UK prime minister.
It is a message that Mr Henderson and fellow Yes activists are confident is winning support on doorsteps and in town hall meetings across Scotland. With less than two weeks to go to the September 18 referendum, independence campaigners are on a roll.
With the latest YouGov polls suggesting that the pro-independence camp has slipped into the lead, the No camp must now fight to regain its previously assumed pole position. Morale in the Yes camp was also recently boosted by a strong showing by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, in a televised debate with Alistair Darling, leader of the pro-union Better Together campaign. The fight to decide the shape of the UK is now well and truly joined.
A vote for independence would unpick the political union with England in 1707 that created Great Britain, ending one of the most consequential national mergers in history and further reducing the UK’s international, economic and military clout.
The debate has deep personal meaning for most Scots. The choice is not just between different possible financial futures but also about who they see themselves to be and what sort of nation they want to live in.
Longstanding nationalists see independence as a natural step to restoring full sovereignty to a Scotland they feel should never have submerged itself in union with much larger England. Others such as Mr Henderson see it mainly as a way to achieve a more just and equal society than they believe is possible within the UK.
But for many supporters of the union, the idea of scrapping Great Britain appears to be an act of insanity that would undermine Scotland’s prosperity and throw away the very sense of British identity and belonging enjoyed by many of its citizens.
That sense of shared anxiety – heightened by the No camp’s recent setbacks – is readily apparent among the volunteer canvassers for the pro-union Better Together campaign as they knock on doors in the northeastern Royal Burgh of Inverurie. Most have never been involved in political campaigns before this referendum.
Heather Watts, a group organiser, says she cannot imagine living in an independent Scotland. “I’m going to die British, so I would have to move,” she says.
Volunteer Clare Carden, an energy efficiency consultant, is convinced independence would be an economic disaster. “It really frightens me. My house is my pension and house prices will plummet,” she says. But just as troubling for Ms Carden, the overseas-born daughter of a UK diplomat who has lived in Scotland for 13 years, is the sense that ending the union would mean she was no longer in her own country. “I’m British,” she says. “If we get independence, I really won’t fit in here.”
As the gloaming turns to darkness and the canvassers call it a night, Peter Chalmers, a local surveyor, says he still finds it hard to believe that in just two weeks Scotland could be on the road to independence. “It’s surreal,” Mr Chalmers says. “I ask myself: ‘how did we get here?’”
It is a question many others are asking. The simple answer is that the pro-independence Scottish National party won a majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament in 2011 and the UK government accepted that a referendum on the issue should be held.
But on paper the referendum should have been a walkover for the No camp. Scottish nationalism has in modern times always been a minority pursuit. Over many years opinion surveys have shown only a third or less of Scots backing independence. Many voters supported the SNP in 2011 because of its competence in government, not its stance on sovereignty.
Pro-union politicians assumed victory was assured – last year one Labour member of the UK parliament memorably declared the campaign effectively over, with only the wounded “still to be bayoneted”.
Mr Darling, a former UK chancellor, always warned against such complacency. But his campaign has struggled to balance poking holes in the SNP’s economic case for independence with articulating a positive vision of Scotland’s future within the UK. Belated promises of more tax powers for the Scottish parliament have not caught the public imagination. Even the concerted rejection by the main UK parties of SNP plans for a post-independence currency union has been dismissed by many voters as an overbearing bluff.
Meanwhile, a disciplined official Yes campaign dominated by Mr Salmond’s SNP has focused on playing down the risks of independence while telling voters that Scotland has the resources to prosper on its own and will only be undermined by continued London rule.
But a vital factor in the rising support for leaving the UK has been the Yes campaign’s evolution into a broad movement of grassroots groups that reaches far beyond traditional SNP members and that forgoes the romantic sentiment and ethnic mythmaking that once infused Scottish nationalism.
As a sign of increasing testiness on both sides, No campaigners complain of nationalist online abuse and intimidation. But the Yes movement’s breadth and outward air of sunny national aspiration was on full display recently on Leith Walk, an Edinburgh avenue dotted for an afternoon with stalls from separate pro-independence groups for lawyers, teachers, artists, Labour party members, lesbian and gay people and even fans of the local football team.
Handing out Scots Asians for Yes leaflets, Pakistan-born Aleem Farooq says independence would help Scotland better tackle poverty and build a more prosperous economy – goals as important for immigrant communities as for native Scots.
A couple of blocks down, Jamaican-born Graham Campbell of Africans for an Independent Scotland, is sharing a mini-marquee with a group of campaigners from English Scots for Yes. “This movement is not nationalism in the ethnic sense,” Mr Campbell says. “The ‘We’ is inclusive.”
The wider Yes movement and its radical socialist arms are helping win over support among the crucial constituency of lower-income voters, concentrated in Glasgow and other central belt cities and towns, many of whom are traditional Labour supporters or are largely disengaged from politics.
The Radical Independence group has been enthusiastically canvassing housing estates for months with the message that only independence can end rule by and for the rich.
Sceptics say Scottish public opinion is only slightly more socialist than that of the UK as a whole and that post-separation fiscal pressures would kill hope for a more generous state. And Labour is revving up its once-mighty Scottish political machine to push its message that the wider union underpins Scotland’s economy and welfare system – and that it will bring a more leftwing flavour to UK government when it beats the Conservatives in next year’s UK general election.
But Labour has been put on the back foot by SNP efforts to highlight the risks of Westminster rule by claiming that “privatisation” of the National Health Service in England threatens the survival of Scotland’s NHS. While pro-union politicians angrily point out Edinburgh already has full control over health policy, worries that UK austerity policies will eventually hurt the health system resonate with many voters.
“The biggest thing for me is the NHS,” says a mother of a profoundly disabled child in Aberdeenshire who has decided to vote Yes. “Without free healthcare, he could not survive.”
All this may yet not be enough to secure a Yes majority on September 18. Many No campaigners believe the huge uncertainties of independence mean even the many undecideds who like the idea will hesitate when they get to the ballot booth. “If you don’t know, vote No,” Better Together canvassers say.
But there is little doubt that the very idea of Great Britain is facing its greatest challenge in centuries. Pro-union hopes that a hefty No majority would put the independence issue to bed forever have faded.
The latest survey by YouGov, a pollster known for its relatively downbeat view of Yes prospects, found that among male voters ready to say which they would vote, 52 per cent were backing independence – a result that suggests the union might only be saved by greater levels of scepticism among female voters.
Stuart Pratt, a Nationalist veteran and Alex Salmond’s election agent, says most landowners in his prosperous northeastern farming district would be expected to back No, but that local Yes organisers have distributed nearly 200 of the large field posters that are a feature of rural campaigning – four times as many as in a general election.
Even if voters reject independence this time around, the idea will not go away, he says. “We are nearly there.”