Scots Juggle Optimism, Bitterness in Campaign for Independence

Pro-independence activists are pounding pavement in hopes of swaying undecided voters but prophecies of economic doom are putting damper on promise of brighter future.

AP

EDINBURGH - My first visit to Edinburgh Airport was on July 7, 2005. Hours earlier four suicide bombers detonated themselves on underground trains and a double-decker bus in London. Rushing back to cover the attacks, after buying my ticket and checking in, I went up to the departures hall. All around were wide television screens showing picture of carnage and devastation but thousands of Scots, on their way to summer holidays in the Greek and Spanish islands were not taking any notice. Like most other British vacationers, their holiday began with a few pints before take-off and what was happening down south was no reason to put that off. As far as they were concerned, these were events happening in another country.

Edinburgh Airport on Monday seemed just like any other part of England. The holidays are over and most of the passengers were bankers or lawyers up for a few hours of deal-making in Edinburgh's financial district and politicians with their entourages arriving for the independence referendum on Thursday. You could barely hear a Scotish accent in the terminal. There was a slight feeling of the masters arriving to ensure the colony's future.

"Scotland is a country" is the somewhat hurt refrain Scots use when their neighbors from down south get England and Britain mixed up, as they often do. In the past they were simply trying to safeguard the local historic pride of their northern land, from the cultural annexation of the dominant part of the United Kingdom. Now it is one of the central slogans of those trying to convince others that five million people can embark on an independent path after 307 years of political union with England.

Like every political slogan, it has a downside. Who can promise Scotland as a separate entity will have a brighter future away from the familiar if not always warm embrace of London.

Throughout the campaign, the supporters of independence have tried to emphasize the positive. As Ben McPherson, a 30-year-old trainee lawyer and activist of the Scottish National Party says, "Scotland is a country and we can make Scotland better. It's the second part of that sentence that made me an independence supporter and that's what I point out when I speak to those who are still undecided." As he goes from door to door, checking off a list of wavering voters, he isn't trying to raise memories of Gaelic mythology and brave-hearted warriors with blue face paint fighting (and usually being massacred by) the English. His mother is English and he studied law at York University, south of the border. He and his family used to vote Labour, which is steadfastly against an independent Scotland. "I stopped supporting Labour when I realized they can't give Britain equality on a social-democratic model. They're too busy trying to get votes from middle England. Only a Scottish government can do it here. I think it will be good for England as well, because when we achieve it, the English will ask why we can't have the same. It will allow new things to happen in politics and society on both sides."

The emphasis of the independence camp on social justice and new opportunities is aimed mainly at left-wing voters who are less attracted by nationalistic pride. It has become more crucial in the last days before the referendum as the gap in the polls is closing and every unsure voter is crucial. But the optimistic promises for a better Scotland have run up against a bitter feeling among the pro-independence camp who feel now that they are facing the entire English establishment – the politicians, banks, big business and of course the media – all threatening to suffocate the spirit of free Scotland.

Linsey Young, a bicycle mechanic who says she has "been working for Scottish independence for seventeen years" is, too, walking in the thin rain knocking on doors of undecided voters, in Edinburgh's Fountain Bridge neighborhood. She tries to smile as she complains of how "the mainstream press," which has almost uniformly endorsed Scotland staying in Britain, "just doesn’t understand the psychology of people in Scotland if they think we will be intimidated by threats of banks leaving and prices going up."

The SNP leadership has been leading a more aggressive line in recent days as large banks threatened to move their headquarters from Edinburgh to London after independence. Party leader and Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, attacked the BBC for reporting this. Another party leader, Jim Sillars, threatened the banks and big companies with a "day of reckoning" come independence.

Even the most optimistic activists, however, realize that the prophecies of economic doom are having an effect. That's why they continue to try and show the brighter side. One of the unsure voters on McPherson's list, Joe McLeish, admits that "I'm undecided on the side of Yes. My main apprehension is that I know it can be better in Scotland but it will take time for that to happen, perhaps only in another generation."

These "foot soldiers of independence," as Linsey Young call herself and her colleagues, are the main reason the independence campaign has a fighting chance of winning on Thursday (though most polls put the No vote slightly ahead). They have been out on the streets for many months, long before the No campaign, or as they prefer to call themselves – Better Together, realized that the Scots may actually be about to break away. Their lack of presence on the streets, the relative scarcity of No posters in windows, despite their majority in the polls, can be explained, among other reasons, by the simple fact that it's much easier to energize people with a dream of independence, while a status quo is not that exciting.

However, there is some bitterness on the other side.

Leaders of the Better Together campaign are now openly accusing the nationalists of "bullying" and intimidation" of their activists and supporters. "It hasn't really broken out in violence," says one campaign official, "because our side hasn't responded in this way or made any confrontations. But our supporters are subject to verbal abuse on the streets, our signs and billboards are vandalized and what's happening online is even worse." The pro-union camp thinks that ultimately this works to their favor because those afraid to say out loud on the street that they prefer for Scotland to remain within Britain, will still vote that way on Thursday.