STIRLING, Scotland — This castled city where highlands and lowlands meet has been fought over many times by the Scots and the English, never more bloodily than in the 13th century battle depicted in the Oscar-winning film “Braveheart.”
Now Alasdair MacPherson hopes to see this former capital of the kingdom of Scotland back in his countrymen’s hands without a single shot fired.
In the biggest test of British unity in decades, Scotland is on the verge of being granted the right to hold a referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom, putting asunder more than 300 years of marriage to England and Wales.
MacPherson, 49, has been pining all his life for a divorce.
“I’ve always been convinced that Scotland would have the opportunity to make up her own mind. … We know we can run our own country,” he said.
But like many a practical Scot, MacPherson is a realist as well as an idealist. If independence can’t win enough votes at the ballot box, he’ll gladly take a consolation prize: an extensive form of self-rule that stops short of secession but would give Scotland the power to tax and spend.
Led by Alex Salmond, one of the canniest politicians in the British Isles, Scottish nationalists are now fighting to put the alternative option, known as “maximum devolution,” on the referendum in the hope that it’ll become a back door to eventual independence.
His foes in London insist that the plebiscite be held as quickly and cleanly as possible.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who doesn’t want to be remembered as the man who presided over the United Kingdom’s demise, is urging that the historic referendum take place next year and that it ask one question and one question only: Should Scotland be independent?
“It must be clear, it must be legal, it must be decisive and it must be fair,” Cameron told the House of Commons recently. He accused Salmond and his Scottish National Party, or SNP, of trying to hedge their bets by lobbying for maximum devolution to be added to the ballot and for the vote to be put off till 2014.
“It’s not a referendum they want. It’s a never-endum,” Cameron declared, backed by jeers at the SNP from other lawmakers.
Such scorn doesn’t go down well here in Scotland, where many feel that officials south of the border have long treated them with little respect, like unruly stepchildren.
But in pushing for a fast, single-question plebiscite in his talks with the Scottish government, Cameron and his fellow unionists want to exploit a simple fact: Opinion polls consistently find a majority in Scotland opposed to undoing the 1707 Act of Union that created modern Britain. At its strongest, pro-independence sentiment tends to top out at 40 percent to 45 percent.
Voters know that breaking up would no doubt be marred by bitter fights over the family jewels, from who gets the money from North Sea oil to who lands custody of the celebrity pandas at the Edinburgh Zoo, a loan from China to the British — not Scottish — government.
Even patriotic Scots find daunting the idea of making their own way in an increasingly globalized, competitive world, particularly for a newborn nation whose population of 5.2 million would be about the same size as Slovakia’s.
“Scotland won’t be strong enough by itself, especially in the current economic climate,” said Katrina Rosie, 30, a resident of Edinburgh. “If they could prove we would be a better country with independence, I’d be all for it. But I wouldn’t support it just to get rid of the English.”
Salmond knows he must convince his fellow Scots, and holding the referendum in 2014 would give nationalists more time to press their cause. Coincidentally or not, June of that year will see Scotland commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a celebrated Scottish victory over the English just a couple of miles from Stirling.
“We have in Alex Salmond an extraordinarily talented politician who’s not unaware of public opinion (against independence) but who feels confident he can shift it,” said Nicola McEwen, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Edinburgh. “He has far more political experience than any of the others in the game at the moment.”
Although Salmond, who as first minister serves as Scotland’s leader, once compared British officials to the witches of “Macbeth” and denounced London’s take of North Sea oil revenue as the “greatest act of international larceny since the Spanish stole the Inca gold,” he has taken a softer approach to promoting Scottish independence.
The new Scotland he offers would hang on to the British monarchy, keep the pound as its currency and continue to participate in some Britain-wide projects.
“They’re keen not to paint this as Scotland breaking off and sailing off into the North Sea somewhere,” McEwen said, noting that the SNP studiously avoids using the word “separatist.”
Not that there wouldn’t be new priorities. Independent Scotland would make itself distinct, Salmond says, by pursuing more social democratic policies, shooing away the British nuclear submarines that lurk in Scottish lochs and abstaining from “illegal wars” such as the invasion of Iraq, all popular positions among Scots.
Nonetheless, some Scots remain leery of going it alone, which makes maximum devolution, or more catchily, devo max, an attractive alternative.
Angus Robertson, the director of the SNP’s yes-on-independence campaign, doesn’t deny that he wants full independence: “But we are democrats, and we have repeatedly stated in the past that we are content to include a question in the referendum offering people the choice of more autonomy.”
The other political parties, including the Conservatives and Labor, must now tread a fine line in their “no” campaign, experts say. They need to emphasize what’s great about Britain and warn Scots of the potentially negative consequences of secession, but can’t afford to come off as dictating, meddlesome or threatening.
Opponents are likely to hammer on financial issues: whether Scotland would have a good enough credit rating on its own to raise money in the international markets, for example, or how much of Britain’s national debt it would have to assume.
That cuts no ice with MacPherson, a city councilman here in Stirling, the city where Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned as an infant in 1543.
“If Scotland were to be slightly poorer, I could live with that,” the die-hard nationalist declared, even as he acknowledged that, if the referendum were held today, it would probably get a thumbs-down in Stirling.
But why, independence activists ask, would anyone here want to remain part of a nation whose national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” actually includes a verse calling on divine help to crush “rebellious Scots”? (The verse is no longer sung.) We can share an island, Scottish nationalists say to the English; we just don’t need to share a government.
Colin Watters still isn’t convinced. A cellphone salesman who lives in Edinburgh, he prefers the status quo.
“It’s worked this long,” said Watters, 28.
In these uncertain times, he opposes anything that might estrange Scotland further from England and Wales after three centuries of sometimes uneasy but mostly beneficial cohabitation.
“We’re cutting off our main allies,” Watters said. “You want as many friends as you can get.”