Jackie Anderson stands in the center of the campaign office she helps run on Maryhill Road in north Glasgow. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with a single word in bright blue print: “Yes.”
On Thursday, Scotland holds a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Pollsters say the race is too close to call. But Anderson has no doubt about the way the residents of Maryhill will vote.
“Independence has won the hearts and minds of people here,” she says. “They want a return to old Labour and socialist values. It’s not about hating the English. It’s about the sense that Westminster is totally detached from ordinary life.”
Fifty-year-old Anderson — herself a former Labour voter who moved to the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) some years ago — grew up in the area and now works there as a housing officer. One of her many duties is distributing vouchers at a local food bank.
“Maryhill is poor. There is a lot of social deprivation. If you’re unemployed, you get £72 [$117] a week support, which is nothing. It’s very tough. But independence offers a bit of hope. That’s why Maryhill is going yes.”
Anderson’s confidence is borne out by the polling data. According to Mark Diffley, director of research company Ipsos MORI, the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future has polarized along socio-economic lines, with low-income and working-class Scots disproportionately in favour of a yes vote and wealthier Scots overwhelmingly against.
“When you put all the variables that we collect together — where people live, their age, their gender — and you analyze what the most important factor is, then neighborhood deprivation is generally the most important factor,” he says. “[The relative wealth of an area] is the variable that really explains what’s going on.”
To some extent, this divide should come as no surprise. Scotland is one of the most unequal countries in western Europe. Close to one million Scots — one fifth of the population — live in inadequate housing. 250,000 are struggling to feed themselves properly. Thirteen percent of the working population lives in poverty.
The epicenter of Scotland’s economic crisis is Glasgow, which has suffered badly as a result of deindustrialization. The steady erosion of Scotland’s manufacturing industries since the 1980s has led to an explosion of insecure and poorly paid work in the city, while unemployment levels in long-neglected communities such as Maryhill far outstrip the national average.
The pro-union Labour Party was dominant in north Glasgow for decades and still retains significant support there, but the independence referendum has exposed the weakness of its base. Although yes flags and posters festoon the windows of apartment blocks the length of Maryhill Road, there is little sign of Labour or the “Better Together” coalition which is leading the charge against secession.
This void has been filled, in part, by a new, youthful, left-wing group called the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), which has spent the last 10 months canvassing Maryhill — and in particular the area’s battered high-rise flats, which stand as a glaring symbol of Scottish social neglect — with the aim of building support for a yes vote.
“The Labour Party has dug its own grave in places like Maryhill,” says 29-year-old Cat Boyd, a prominent RIC activist. “It’s committed to the same austerity policies that the Conservative government in London is implementing. A no vote means more cuts and more pain for the people of Scotland.”
RIC has been pivotal in bringing sections of the Scottish electorate once loyal to Labour over to the yes side. One recent survey suggested that more than 40 percent of Scots who voted Labour at the last U.K. election in 2010 now support independence.
“Our message is clear,” Boyd says. “The referendum has nothing to do with identity or the SNP. It’s about who should own and control Scotland’s resources. We won’t be able to build a better economy without independence.”
Both RIC and the broader yes campaign have worked hard to get people onto the electoral roll. Since January, they have staged a series of voter registration drives in working-class communities across the country. These efforts reflect the new democratic mood in Scotland. A total of 4.2 million people — 97 percent of Scotland’s adult population — are now registered to vote, and turnout on Thursday is expected to exceed 80 percent.
But there are concerns that expectations are running too high, and that independence will not be the panacea some in the yes campaign believe. Callum McCormick, 28, was born and brought up in Maryhill. He recently returned to the area after two years living and working in London. McCormick says he is voting yes but “without any illusions.”
“It could go wrong, there’s no question about that,” he says. “Politically, I’m against nationalism and if we leave the UK we will have to keep the SNP in check. I don’t think independence will make the lives of people here better overnight. But the alternative is more of the same, and that’s not good enough.”
McCormick’s view is common among voters in Maryhill. Enthusiasm for independence is not matched by enthusiasm for the SNP, whose support along Scotland’s post-industrial west coast, while growing, remains limited. The SNP’s backing for corporate tax cuts has proved particularly contentious, reinforcing the suspicion that the party is too close to big business.
And yet, despite their reservations about nationalism, the residents of Maryhill have embraced the idea of constitutional change. For Sandra McFadden, a 63-year-old retiree who lives in the nearby Westercommon high-rises, independence means more responsive government.
“Westminster doesn’t listen to us,” she says. “But we will be able to hold [an independent Scottish parliament] to account. If the SNP doesn’t give us a better deal, we’ll get rid of them.”
For the last few years McFadden has helped organise community opposition to Westminster-imposed benefit cuts. But as the referendum debate has gathered pace, she has seen the merger of two issues — economic austerity and constitutional reform — into one.
“I’d like to see a more equal society,” McFadden adds. “People say ‘If you think with your head, you’re scared. If you think with your heart, you’re patriotic.’ But I’m not patriotic and I’m not scared. I just want a better future for my country.”