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Rich, Poor Divide Could Determine Scotland's Future

  • Marianne Brown
  • Henry Ridgwell

This week the people of Scotland will take part in one of the most important events in the history of the United Kingdom, a referendum on independence.

As "Yes" and "No" campaigners race to persuade those who have not yet made up their minds, one significant factor in the possible outcome is income.

One of the best known images of Scotland is its capital city, Edinburgh, with its iconic castle and ubiquitous bagpipe players.

But Edinburgh represents Scotland in other ways, too. It is home to some of the country’s most affluent residents living alongside impoverished communities.

The growing divide between rich and poor has been identified as crucial before the vote for Scottish independence on September 18.

Pro-union push

As the debate over Scotland’s future enters its final stages, polls remain too close to call. And political leaders in London have made a last-minute offer of greater autonomy if Scottish voters reject independence.

Polls suggest the vote will be close, and the nearly half-million voters still undecided could determine whether Scotland leaves its 307-year-old union.

While only Scotland will get to vote on the nation’s future, the rest of the United Kingdom - England, Wales and Northern Ireland - is doing its best to sway voters.

A pro-union rally was staged Monday in London. Polls show a big majority outside Scotland wants it to stay within the United Kingdom.

In Edinburgh, British Prime Minister David Cameron made an impassioned speech to voters.

“For the people of Scotland to walk away now, would be like painstakingly building a home and then walking out the door and throwing away the keys,” Cameron said.

Analysts say the passionate tone reflects shock at the narrowing of opinion polls - and realization of the profound impact that Scottish independence would have on the whole of Britain.

Wealth gap in vote

To the north of Edinburgh, at a bustling "Yes" shop in Leith, Scottish National Party member Jacqueline Chalmers said, in general, wealthier people will likely stick with the status quo.

"It is not so black and white, but there is a tendency that if you live in a bigger house, then probably the union has been good for you, so you will stick with what you know,” Chalmers said.

A poll released earlier this year by The Financial Times showed 40 percent of people with household incomes below $23,000 would vote yes.

Independence would mean a guarantee that tax and social security rates would be set in line with the wishes of the people of Scotland.

This includes scrapping the newly introduced Bedroom Tax, part of welfare reform that cuts the amount of benefits that people can get if they are considered to have a spare room in their home.

Taxes on the poor, past and present, play an important role in the debate.

Registering for the vote

Iain Simpson, a member of the Radical Independence Campaign, said, "We have spent two years signing people onto the electoral register on housing estates. People who have never voted before, people who never registered to escape from the poll tax and things.

“They have not joined the electoral register to say ‘We Love Westminster,’ ” he said while at the “Yes” shop in Leith.

The poll tax was a local government tax criticized for being needlessly burdensome on the poor.

It was introduced by then-Conservative Party leader Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989 in Scotland, and later to the rest of the Britain, and was scrapped after widespread protests.

The so-called “Thatcher years” tainted support for the Conservative Party in Scotland.

But voting for independence as a “protest vote” is misguided, said Scottish Parliament Member for the Labor Party Malcolm Chisholm.

"I suppose the problem is for a lot of people they are just seeing it as a lot of "Yes" voters do not like the government in London so we will just vote against that,” Chisholm said. “But of course we are saying it is for life and you have to look at what the economic and financial consequences are, and a lot of people are dreaming about what they can do."

Canvassing Leith

Joining Chisholm on the streets of Leith, canvassing for the pro-union campaign Better Together, is solicitor Callum McLean, a traditional Liberal Party supporter.

McLean said he believes Scots would not benefit from going it alone.

"Scotland has a very good settlement in terms of the amount of spending per capita in comparison to the rest of the U.K. That is a deal that it gets because of its traditional place in the UK,” McLean said.

Chisholm said it is “rather a generalization” to say income level is deciding who votes what. He said he has been canvassing in high-rise flats in deprived areas of Edinburgh and has met many “No” voters.

The "Yes" camp, too, said they are finding support in traditionally wealthier parts of the city.

Cameron seen as shaken

Meanwhile, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who is leading the “Yes” campaign, said Prime Minister Cameron is shaken by recent polls that show a narrowing between the two campaigns.

“In fact, it was said in my presence that [Cameron] did not want to lose Scotland as George III lost America. And if we leave that to one side, Scotland is a nation. It is not a property that can be lost and found,” Salmond added.

A late public opinion poll showed the percentage of those in favor of separation increasing, which made the “No” side push harder in persuading Scots they will achieve more autonomy if they do not secede.

One of the most vocal anti-independence campaigners, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pointed out the financial consequences of the “Yes” vote.

“Look at the other consequences, we lose the benefit we have from the UK currency and the ability to make decisions at the UK level and let us be honest about this, the 1 million jobs that are linked to membership of the UK,” Brown said.

With just hours to go until polling stations open, both the "Yes" and "No" camps are using fundamental questions over Britain’s future to appeal to voters.

London said an independent Scotland’s memberships of NATO and the European Union would be in doubt. The Edinburgh government said it would easily qualify to join.

Britain’s nuclear arsenal is based in Scotland; pro-independence lawmakers said they would force it south of the border.

The British government, which has said it will not agree to a common currency, said Scotland may not be able to use the pound. The “Yes” campaign insists the currency is as Scottish as it is English.

First-time voters

Analyzing the debate is a new cohort of voters: for the first time in Britain 16- and 17-year-olds will have a vote.

Sheltering from the wind in a cafe overlooking Aberdeen beach on Scotland’s east coast, friends Erin Fyfe-McWilliam and Martin Close, each 16, debate their differing views.

“They do not have statistics to back up anything they say. It is just like, ‘Vote "Yes" and we will sort it out,’ ” Fyfe-McWilliam said.

However, Close said, “I am pro-independence because I think that the best people to govern Scotland are the people to live and work here and with the powers that independence would bring, we would be able to elect a government that will put into policy decisions what we elect them to do.”

The results should be known early Friday.

Whatever the country decides, the unprecedented level of debate has engaged people from across the political spectrum and a close call at the polls is likely to shake up British politics for years.

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