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Prayer and squabbling as Scots head to the polls

18 September 2014

Tim Wyatt reports from Edinburgh 


Decision day: Scots are heading to the polls to vote in the long-awaited referendum on independence

Decision day: Scots are heading to the polls to vote in the long-awaited referendum on independence

SCOTS headed to the polls on Thursday under largely grey skies for what could be the most significant vote in these islands for centuries.

The last week of polls showed a narrow lead for the anti-independence campaign, but, with a significant number of undecided voters and a very large turnout expected, the Yes campaigners remained hopeful of upsetting the odds.

Twelve hours before polling stations opened across Scotland, a group of about 50 Christians had gathered outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to pray and sing. Falling to their knees, the group recited verses from the Bible: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

"As we worship, build your throne," they sang, some with arms raised, as bemused tourists and foreign journalists looked on. A 24-year-old IT worker, David Roy, said he had come because it was important to trust God for this "pretty significant decision". He had decided to vote No. "[There are] definitely practical and logical [reasons], which I don't think is incompatible in faith, but for me it was all encased in prayer and working out what I think God wants for this nation."

Mary Wilson said that the gathering was "a group of Christians that are probably divided, but that's not important at the end of the day: it's keeping our country together".

In contrast, Old St Paul's Episcopal Church, just a 15-minute walk from the parliament, was empty when I visited around mid-morning, despite being open all day for "prayer and reflection" on the referendum.

One polling station among the 5579 opening at 7 a.m. was in the parish hall of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in central Edinburgh. The church's priest said that he had been careful not take sides, but was encouraging everyone to take part and vote.

Outside this polling station, competing groups of Yes and No activists milled around, handing out stickers and chanting slogans. Hugo Stack, 14, was urging voters to choose independence. He said: "I think it's quite clear from the campaigns that Scotland would be richer without England. It's been an unfair Union: we are subsidising England."

Some Yes campaigners have been accused of intimidating those who disagree with them, No supporters being shouted down or even attacked with eggs at rallies. Hugo, however, rejected the claim that pro-independence activists were especially divisive. "It's 50/50. Half of Scotland is Yes and half of Scotland is No. You don't need to stereotype either side," he said.

For the first time in British electoral history, 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in this referendum. Hugo said that this had pushed more of his peers to engage with the debates, and argued that teenagers were "old enough to see which side they want", even if there was more peer pressure at his age.

Iain Morse, a freelance journalist, was campaigning for the No campaign, swathed in a Union-flag scarf. He said that the Yes campaign revolved around identity politics and splitting the English and Scottish into two. "I'm British. My mother was Scottish, and my father was English; so I don't accept the bipolarity," he said. "You can be British Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Pakistani, Irish, anything you want. For me, it's an identity that's important to be." He also said that he had large doubts about the economic viability of an independent Scotland.

As Mr Morse spoke to me, a small group of Yes supporters approached, offering commiserations in mock English accents for the "bad day" he would have tomorrow, as they expected a Yes victory.

Among them was the novelist Irvine Welsh, a prominent independence supporter who now lives in the United States. When challenged by Mr Morse why he backed independence when he did not live in Scotland, Mr Welsh replied that he wanted the "best for my family and friends".

The Yes activists continued to engage a visibly irritated Mr Morse in debate, and one attempted to grab his scarf, which prompted an angry response. After the group had wandered off, he said the incident was typical of the bad-natured campaign over the past year. "At every No campaign [event] we have been harassed by the SNP [Scottish National Party]," he said. "We won't re-unite [after the result]. The divisions will still be there."

Away from the squabbling activists, a steady trickle of voters entered the parish hall to cast their ballot, answering the simple question "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

One Yes voter, Esme McLeod, 36, a paralegal, said that the big issue for her was the "democratic deficit". She said: "Some of the things that are enacted across the UK don't apply [to Scotland], like the bedroom tax. I'm also burnt to the core by Thatcherism.

"We need to have a bit more faith in ourselves; it is not about nationalism, but caring about where we live. The grass-roots nature of the campaign fills my heart with joy. This has not been an aggressive or angry but a reasonable and civilised debate."

But Anna Brocklehurst, leaving the polling station with her husband and two small children, said that the UK was one country and "needed to stay together".

"I voted No. For me, it was because I think Scotland does need to change, and I think we could have more powers, and Westminster isn't necessarily relevant to us; but I don't think independence is the way to achieve that."

Similar doubts were expressed by clergy at the heart of the some of the issues that have dominated the referendum campaign.

The Revd George Bradburn is a priest at the Roman Catholic St Gildas' parish in Rosneath, a few miles from the Trident nuclear submarine base at Faslane, which, the SNP has said, would be ejected from an independent Scotland. He said on Wednesday that most of the residents in his parish were opposed to independence. Many of them were English, and had settled after serving in the Royal Navy.

"That said, the local residents are divided. The Yes campaign has been much more lively with the meetings they have conducted. . . The No campaign has been less prominent, but tends to come from a more subdued type of member of the community, but no less determined."

He said that his church had not promoted one side or another, merely the importance of voting. "As a church person, I would love to see an end to nuclear weapons, [but] few, I think, will decide the way they vote on this one issue, mainly because the weapons will remain in Britain, while the jobs, which are the lifeblood of this area, will sail away down south."

In the English border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Vicar of Berwick, the Revd Dennis Handley, said that his congregation also had concerns about the practicalities of independence. "People live in Berwick and work in Scotland, or the other way around. Or they are farmers who have land on both sides. Where is it going to put them?" he asked on Monday. He said that some of his parishioners felt Scottish, some felt English, and some felt neither.

"If Scotland goes independent, being a border town that is so close, why should Scotland have the benefits when we don't? It's a unique position."

The polls remained open until 10 p.m., before the count begins immediately. The first results are expected early on Friday morning. A final result is likely to be revealed between 6 and 9 a.m.

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