Glasgow voters likely to determine whether Scotland stays in the UK

Voters in Glasgow and its suburbs could play decisive role in determining whether Scotland stays in the UK or becomes an independent country

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 5:38am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 10:18am

When Queen Victoria unveiled the Italian marble staircases, mosaic tile flooring and gold leaf ceiling in Glasgow's City Chambers in 1888, Scotland's industrial hub was at the heart of the British Empire she ruled.

Glasgow rose with its ready access to iron ore and coal used in heavy engineering, locomotive construction and, above all, shipbuilding. It exported to Africa, Asia and South America, earning the nickname Second City of the Empire. Between 1870 and the outbreak of the first word war, almost 20 per cent of the world's ships were built in Glasgow.

Then a century of industrial decline set in. Now Glasgow is poised again to shake British history. Rather than forging the rivets holding the empire together, Glasgow could play a decisive role in tearing the United Kingdom apart when Scots vote on September 18 on whether to become independent and quit the United Kingdom.

Polls show that more Scottish voters want to stay in the UK, although enough people are undecided to leave the balloting results uncertain.

"You can't take anything for granted," says Jonathan Downie, 30, a conference interpreter who grew up in a Glasgow suburb. He has yet to make up his mind on how to vote on the question. "I wouldn't be surprised if you saw a late surge and I wouldn't be surprised if Glasgow flips."

The popular debate over whether or not to carve Europe's newest sovereign state out of one of its oldest is stirring both sides of the Scotland-England border. Proponents and detractors of an independent Scotland are locked in a contest for Glasgow, its biggest prize.

"If you fail to win Glasgow, you're unlikely to win the referendum," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a city resident for two decades. "It's big, and it has a social profile that's more favorable for the 'yes' side."

Glasgow and its suburbs comprise about 20 per cent of Scotland's 5.3 million population. Thus it has more weight than anywhere else on the constitutional changes that could force the UK's break-up after more than 300 years.

At stake is an array of policy issues - from tax rates, pensions, passports and border controls to keeping the pound and ridding Scotland of nuclear weapons.

In Glasgow the crux of the argument is simple: do the people living among some of the worst deprivation in Britain think they will be sufficiently better off in an independent Scotland?

"People who are more open to independence are the people in the poorer areas," says John Mason, 56, who represents the pro-independence Scottish National Party in a Glasgow district.

"They are basically saying, well it's pretty grim at the moment so surely it can't be any worse, it might even be better."

A poll published on January 26 showed a shift towards independence, albeit not by enough to win. The survey by ICM for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper found 37 per cent in favour, up five percentage points from a September poll. Those preferring the status quo fell to 44 per cent from 49 per cent.

A TNS survey released a week later showed a 13-point gap across Scotland, narrowing from 19 points in September. In Glasgow, more respondents supported the UK than wanted to leave it, the deficit for nationalists widening to 20 points.

Glasgow symbolises Britain's industrial fortunes - from gleaming rise to rusty decline.

Through the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, the city sent manufactured goods to all parts of the British Empire. The North British Locomotive Company, formed in 1903, with 8,000 employees turned out almost 600 locomotives a year at its peak in 1905 to 1909. Glasgow's industriousness brought the trappings of Victorian wealth, including the world's third-oldest subway.

Today Glaswegians rely on call centres, back-office finance, retail and public administration for almost two-thirds of their jobs. About 30 per cent of households had no working breadwinner, according to a report last year by the Office for National Statistics. Male life expectancy is about six years less than in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, 65 kilometres east; in some districts, it's less than 65 years.

"Social circumstances and inequality are starting to become more prominent in the debate about whether we would be better in an independent Scotland or not," says Bruce Whyte, who runs the public health programme at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health. "But there are more immediate issues for a lot of Glaswegians" than voting on independence, he says.

The UK was formed by the Acts of Union in 1707. The prime minister's Conservative-led government, backed by the opposition Labour Party, says Scotland is better off being a part of that larger country, whose economy just had its best year of growth since 2007.

The Scottish National Party, which runs the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, says it's time to move on.

Party leader Alex Salmond wants to use North Sea energy resources to help maintain services and social spending, saying Scotland should have control over its own finances and be able to make decisions such as getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Scotland would have a £150 billion (HK$1.9 trillion) economy, when it includes a geographical share of North Sea oil. Salmond's government forecasts a budget deficit of no more than 3.2 per cent of output in the first year of Scotland getting full autonomy.

The Scottish public is still "taken in" by an illusion of empire and the notion that being British means having influence, says Mason, a lawmaker in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, which has powers over health, education, justice and transport.

How Scottish voters respond to the question to be put in the referendum - "Should Scotland be an independent country?" - may depend on how British they feel, says Curtice at Strathclyde. That means testing the loyalties both political and national of the people in Glasgow and across Scotland.

"This is a campaign for the 'no' side to lose and it needs the 'yes' side to fight a brilliant campaign," Curtice says. "If all the ducks line up they might just get it. But if they do, it's going to be a nation in shock."

A city of contrasts, Glasgow has a history of political radicalism rooted in workers' rights. The Labour Party's founder, Keir Hardie, was a socialist Scot whose father worked at the Glasgow shipyards. Labour won control of Glasgow's municipal government in 1933 and has held it almost continuously ever since.

Of Glasgow's seven Westminster lawmakers, all are Labour members, and all toe the party line opposing independence.

Not all the party's supporters agree. On a Thursday evening in Glasgow last month, more than 200 people crammed into the hall of a former Victorian school for an event organised by a group called Labour for Independence.

"We have to make this debate as broad as we can because without Labour we will not win this," said Elaine Smith, a comedy actress turned campaigner who chaired the meeting. "This is about us, a vote for our future."

So it was no accident that the Scottish government opted for Glasgow as the setting to unveil its blueprint for independence, a 650-page document covering everything from the pound and budget deficit to passports and broadcasting.

SNP leader Salmond staged the event in November in the city's science centre.

There, as a fine Scottish rain drifted down around the cranes that represent the last remnants of shipbuilding, he spoke of the birth of a new European state by March 24, 2016. The referendum is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a "common-sense proposition", he said.

The decision lies with how Glaswegians reconcile their imperial past with their constitutional future.

When it was time to build the British Empire, the people of Glasgow "helped kick the whole thing off", says Matt Qvortrup, a researcher at Cranfield University in England who specialises in referendums. "Now they get to see if they read it its last rites."