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.
Ready access to iron ore and coal had fired Glasgow’s rise to pre-eminence in heavy engineering, locomotive construction and above all shipbuilding, with exports from the River Clyde to Africa, Asia and South America earning it the accolade of Second City of the Empire. Between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I, almost 20 percent of the world’s ships were built in Glasgow.
A century of industrial decline later, Glasgow is again poised to make British history. This time, rather than forging the rivets holding the empire together, Glasgow is set to play a decisive role in what could be the final chapter of the United Kingdom: this year’s referendum on Scottish independence. Polls show more Scots voters want to remain a part of the U.K. than leave it, though enough people are undecided to make it too early to call the result of the Sept. 18 ballot.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” said Jonathan Downie, 30, a conference interpreter who grew up in a Glasgow suburb and has yet to make up his mind which way to vote. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a late surge and I wouldn’t be surprised if Glasgow flips.”
After months of tit-for-tat statements, assertions and statistics, the popular debate over whether to carve Europe’s newest sovereign state out of one of its oldest is stirring on both sides of the Scotland-England border.
Prime Minister David Cameron defended the Union in a speech in London today, while 400 miles to the north, 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,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a resident of the city for the past two decades, said in an interview. “It’s big, and it has a social profile that’s more favorable for the ‘yes’ side.”
Glasgow, which including suburbs makes up about 20 percent of Scotland’s 5.3 million population, has more weight than anywhere else on the constitutional changes that could force the U.K.’s breakup after more than 300 years.
At stake is an array of policy issues from tax rates, pensions and keeping the pound to potential border controls, passports and ridding Scotland of nuclear weapons.
Joining politicians, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney entered the debate in Edinburgh by making a speech on Jan. 29 on how a shared currency union might work. BP Plc Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley then weighed in this week by saying it didn’t feel right for the U.K. to disintegrate.
Yet in Glasgow the crux of the argument is simple: Do the people living among some of the worst levels of deprivation in Britain think they will be sufficiently better off in an independent Scotland to vote for it?
“People who are more open for independence are the people in the poorer areas,” said 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 Jan. 26 showed a shift toward independence, albeit not by enough to win. The survey by ICM for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper found 37 percent in favor, up five percentage points from a poll in September. Those preferring the status quo fell to 44 percent from 49 percent.
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 U.K. than wanted to leave it, the deficit for nationalists widening to 20 points.
Glasgow encapsulates Britain’s arc of industrial rise to decline in much the same way that Detroit does for the changing fortunes in parts of the U.S.
Through the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, the city sent manufactured goods to all posts of the British Empire. The North British Locomotive Company, formed in 1903 from the merger of three Glasgow rivals, was the biggest such works outside the U.S., with 8,000 employees turning out almost 600 locomotives a year at its peak in 1905 to 1909. With Glasgow’s industriousness came the trappings of Victorian wealth, including the world’s third-oldest subway.
Glaswegians now rely more on services such as call centers, back-office finance, retail and public administration for almost two-thirds of jobs. About 30 percent 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, 40 miles (65 kilometers) 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,” said Bruce Whyte, who runs the public health program at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health. “But there are more immediate issues for a lot of Glaswegians” than independence, he said.
The U.K. 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 part of that larger country, whose economy just had its best year of growth since 2007 after an austerity drive.
The Scottish National Party, or SNP, which runs the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, says it’s time to move on.
SNP leader Alex Salmond wants to use North Sea energy resources to help maintain services and social spending, saying Scotland should have control of its own finances and be able to make decisions such as getting rid of nuclear weapons.
Scotland would have a 150 billion-pound ($245 billion) economy, when including a geographical share of North Sea oil, and Salmond’s government forecasts a budget deficit of no wider than 3.2 percent of output in the first year of full autonomy.
The Scottish public is still “taken in” by an illusion of empire and the notion that being British means having influence, said Mason, a lawmaker at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, which has powers over such things as health, education, justice and transportation. He previously served in London in Westminster, which has control over macroeconomic matters, foreign and defense policy.
How Scots voters respond to the question to be put in the referendum -- “Should Scotland be an independent country?” -- may depend on how British they feel, said 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,” he said at his local café among the red sandstone houses of the city’s West End, an area where boutiques and bars nestle in the shadow of the University of Glasgow, founded in 1451. “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 to match its legacy of industry and deprivation. The Labour Party’s founder, Keir Hardie, was a socialist Scot whose father had a stint working in the Glasgow shipyards. Labour won control of Glasgow’s municipal government in 1933 and has held it near-continuously ever since.
Of Glasgow’s seven Westminster lawmakers, all are Labour, 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 organized 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 C. Smith, a comedy actress turned campaigner who chaired the meeting. “It’s not only the SNP. But they have brought us to this place, this special place. 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 held the event in November in the city’s science center, part of a revived area along the Clyde.
There, as the 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.
At the City Chambers, tourists are taken back to a world of better prospects and Victorian opulence.
Paid for by traders and taxpayers, the original price was 150,000 pounds, though it ended up costing about 580,000 pounds, or 28 million pounds nowadays. More than 600,000 people attended the laying of the foundation stone.
In 1889, a year after the city-hall building opened, Queen Victoria returned to chair the first council meeting, underscoring Glasgow’s status as second only to London in imperial prominence.
“Think of what we’ve done together,” David Cameron said today, appealing to the people of the U.K.’s other constituent nations, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to become engaged in the debate. “We want you to stay,” he said.
The decision lies above all else with the people of Glasgow and how they 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,” said Matt Qvortrup, a senior researcher at Cranfield University in England who specializes in referendums. “Now they get to see if they read it its last rites.”
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