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Independence vote divides Scotland

GLASGOW — When Scottish nationalists this week secured a deal to hold a referendum on independence from Britain, they were trading heavily on their country's historical and cultural identity.

Blue and white Scottish saltire flags adorned Edinburgh — where British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived to sign the deal — bagpipes droned and tartan filled shop windows.

The vote will be held in late 2014 on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when the Scots defeated English invaders.

But despite the enthusiasm of those who believe Scotland is finally on a path to claiming its rightful place in the world, it appears that appeals to history and culture won't be enough to win independence here.

Opinion polls indicate most Scots are reluctant to sever ties with London. Beyond the streets of the Scottish capital, divided loyalties look set to make it a fight to the finish.

The referendum is the brainchild of Alex Salmond, a silver-tongued former economist who persuaded the UK government to put independence to a vote by leveraging a surge of support that allowed his left-leaning Scottish National Party to gain control of the regional parliament in 2011.

Although Salmond has already predicted victory, a recent poll found that only 34 percent of Scots support independence against 55 percent who agree Scotland's economy would suffer if it were a sovereign state.

Those figures have given hope to Britain's main political parties, both fiercely opposed to separation.

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Cameron, the Conservative leader, wants to maintain the union chiefly to avoid the massive expense of relocating UK military and other Scotland-based resources. The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, can't afford to lose its many supporters north of Scottish border.

Among Scots, the residents of Glasgow — a declining industrial center that's Scotland's largest city with half a million of the country's 4 million voters — will have a large say in the country's fate. It was clear this week that both Salmond's nationalists and their opponents have their work cut out for them there.

Among potential yes voters, Audrey Flannigan, 43, was carrying bags of groceries through the Arden estate, a housing project in Glasgow's southern suburbs that is currently seen as a Labour stronghold. "It's a good idea for Scotland," she said. "We can finally speak up for our own people."

Outside the Arden Bar, retired engineer James McGivern, 69, was among a gaggle of smokers who saw independence as a panacea that would solve gripes over immigration, unemployment and cutbacks imposed by the government in London.

"I feel dreadfully sorry for the people looking for work," he said. "This government has decimated jobs. The people down south are screwing us and there's very little given back to the people of Scotland. I don't think independence is going to be easy, but it can be done."

Billy Vance, a 54-year-old care worker out walking his dog, disagreed. "It won't make a blind bit of difference," he said. "Nothing will change, whoever wins."

Peter Lynch, an expert in Scottish history and politics at the University of Stirling, warns against trusting the opinion data. With two years of campaigning still ahead, he says a large chunk of undecided voters could be swayed both by arguments on each side and by the economic fortunes of the UK and European Union.

"The basic polls tell you a consistent story of ‘no' but I'm not sure how reliable that is over a two year time scale," he said. "There are going to be events, ideas, developments that people will really engage with in the course of a long, long campaign."

The Scottish National Party's manifesto includes nuclear disarmament, free education, and the elimination of poverty — but it's yet to define an exact vision for an independent Scotland.

While it already has its own a legal system, a strong cultural identity and other trappings of a sovereign nation, questions remain over the armed forces, currency and how Scotland would be able to sustain its economy.

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Pro-independence campaigners have stirred controversy by laying claim to an estimated 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas reserves in North Sea waters off the Scottish coast. There are also claims of a tax imbalance with the rest of the UK that leaves each Scottish adult $800 worse off each year.

"I would argue that we would be better off," said John Mason, a Scottish National Party lawmaker who represents voters in Glasgow. "We have issues like poverty, poor housing, poor schools that we could be spending money on and that's going south at the moment."

Mason rejects claims that independence would weaken Scotland's international standing. He says it would give the country a stronger voice in the European Union, a seat in the UN and improve ties and trade links with countries, such as Argentina, that have an uneasy relationship with the UK.

Opponents think otherwise. An editorial in the Scottish Daily Mail newspaper argued that Scotland would struggle if unhitched from Britain's global influence and stripped, mid-recession, of the $48 billion annual grant it receives from the UK government.

"Britain is the best thing that happened to us: five million Scots adrift and disregarded in a sea of 500 million EU citizens is the worst fate that could befall us," the editorial said. "Salmond's dream is Scotland's nightmare."

Political expert Lynch believes campaigners are wrong to try to quantify short-term ways in which independence would change life on both sides of the border. He says they should be presenting "alternative futures" that look up to a decade ahead instead.

"The way to understand if you're better off is to look at bigger questions about the health service and schooling and university education and the environment," he said. "The $800 thing is interesting, but what makes for a happy society is a lot more than just the pound in your pocket."

Some believe independence could have the greatest impact in places where society is least happy. Among them, east Glasgow's Parkhead district is consistently named one of Britain's most deprived areas thanks to its high unemployment and crime and low life expectancy.

Parkhead is a very different Scotland than the one described in history books Salmond cherishes. There's no tartan to be seen, no bagpipes to be heard. There are no glistening lochs or sunlit glens where proud warriors once fought mighty battles.

Instead, squat rows of welfare housing huddle against a driving October rain. Scruffy, windowless pubs do a steady trade serving hardened all-day drinkers. Although there are some signs of recent regeneration, many shops and businesses stand empty, shuttered by hard times.

"The way to understand if you're better off is to look at bigger questions about the health service and schooling and university education and the environment," he said. "The $800 thing is interesting, but what makes for a happy society is a lot more than just the pound in your pocket."

Even here, where citizens might be expected to seize on independence as a way to reverse economic decline, opinions appear divided.

"Twenty years ago, when resources like the North Sea oil were at their height, I would have thought about it," said butcher Frank Cross, a wiry, animated figure whose family business has survived in the same spot for 70 years. "But the time has passed. I might change my mind though, once I've heard all the arguments."

Waiting at a bus stop, Lorraine McAlpine says she wants independence to stop cuts to the disability allowance she's been receiving since she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 20 years ago.

"The English have been keeping us down," she said. "First it was Labour, then the Conservatives after them, taking away my disability allowance. They're sponging up all our money."

Standing in a cafe doorway, Robert Granger, an unemployed former jockey, says although he wants more independence, Scotland shouldn't risk "ending up like Ireland," in need of a substantial UK-backed bailout.

"I'm a nationalist, but I know it makes no sense to break up the union," he said. "People aren't thinking straight about independence, they're hung up on the past."

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"They think it's about religion or the battle of Bannockburn or William Wallace," he concluded. "But it isn't. It's about our future."

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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A road sign, decorated with Scotland's St. Andrew's cross, greets travelers crossing the border with England.