Waving a British flag and wearing a coat with its red, white and blue pattern, Amy Roslender was as clear in her views about Scottish independence as a six-year-old can be. For the family friend on whose shoulders she sat, the issue was more complicated.
“My heart’s saying one thing, my head’s saying another,” said Scott Beveridge, 39, as he waited at Scotland’s Rosyth shipyard to watch Queen Elizabeth II launch an aircraft carrier named in her honor. “It’s a risk. Life’s good just now, and it’s a question of whether to make that leap of faith.”
The project manager’s personal battle summarizes the arguments being used by the two sides in Scotland’s independence debate. On the one hand, nationalists play to emotions of patriotism, while on the other, unionists warn of the dangers of a Scotland unable to use the pound, excluded from the European Union and shut out of defense contracts.
As the campaigns in the Sept. 18 referendum enter their final phase, the fate of the 307-year-old U.K. rests on the relative weight voters place on political aspirations versus what the “no” camp tells them is harsh economic reality.
“We’re making progress, which is why, with increasing confidence, I can say that I think we will win, provided we continue to get our arguments across,” Alistair Darling, the former chancellor of the exchequer who leads the Better Together campaign against independence, said on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show yesterday. “Poll after poll now show it is the economic arguments that are dominating people’s thinking.”
The shipyard workers and their families at the July 4 event across the Forth Bridge from Edinburgh were a unionist crowd. Most were clear that their jobs depend on the defense industry.
There were even some boos when pro-independence Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Alex Salmond appeared on the big screens.
“My job’s on the line,” said Alan Pearson, 29, a draftsman with Babcock International Group Plc who worked on the carrier, wearing a Union Flag T-shirt.
His father, David, worked in the same yard for 20 years. “We’re as Scottish as anybody,” said David, carrying a large Union Flag. “But we’ve been the United Kingdom for 300 years. We’re stronger together.”
Aside from building vessels, Scotland has been home to the British nuclear deterrent since the 1960s. The base at Faslane on the west coast and is Scotland’s biggest single employment site, with 6,700 people ranging from painting contractors, joiners and cleaners to the 3,000 naval personnel.
The “no” campaign has held a steady poll lead since the referendum was first announced more than two years ago. While both sides have produced multiple documents to support their arguments about the probable future of an independent Scotland, opinions have shifted little.
“So far, arguments from the ‘yes’ side are only believed by ‘yes’ supporters, and arguments from the ‘no’ side are only believed by ‘no’ supporters,” said Anthony Wells, an analyst at polling company YouGov Plc. “Neither side has found a wedge issue that breaks support off from the other side.”
Amy’s mother, Suzanne, is one of those who knows for certain that her life would change under independence. Her husband, Tim, is a warrant officer in the Royal Navy, currently at sea aboard HMS Vanguard, one of the four nuclear-missile submarines at Faslane.
The SNP has pledged to get rid of nuclear arms should Scotland vote for independence, turning the site into the headquarters of the Scottish Navy using what it says would be the new state’s share of the conventional military hardware.
“It’s where my husband works,” Suzanne said. “I’m not sure what the Navy would do if we got independence.”
The Navy spent the morning making the case for Scots to be proud of being part of the U.K., with marching bands, two fly-pasts, and films heralding a bright future with the new carrier.
Admiral George Zambellas, the chief of the naval staff who bears the title First Sea Lord, twice quoted Prime Minister David Cameron in his speech.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth is an expression of our national ambition,” he said. “At the turn of the year, the prime minister spoke of Great Britain as a nation on the rise. HMS Queen Elizabeth is an expression of that.”
To Wells at YouGov, the economic arguments offered by both sides of the independence debate miss the bigger point.
“It’s ultimately a question of emotion,” he said. “If you feel that Scotland needs to be free of England, then that’s above any economic argument. If you don’t, then the economic argument matters. And that seems to be moving against ‘yes.’”