Skeptical Glasgow eyes breakaway, a year from Scottish vote

A member of the public takes a picture of a man dressed as the character William Wallace from Braveheart in Edinburgh on August 21, 2013 during the annual Festival Fringe.</p>

A member of the public takes a picture of a man dressed as the character William Wallace from Braveheart in Edinburgh on August 21, 2013 during the annual Festival Fringe.

Plagued by a reputation for poverty and ill-health, yet brimming with economic promise — Scotland's biggest city Glasgow is a place of sharp contrasts. And when it comes to opinions on the break-up of the United Kingdom, things are no different.

Wednesday marks exactly a year until Scotland holds a historic referendum on whether to leave the rest of the United Kingdom —England, Wales and Northern Ireland — and go it alone as an independent state.

Breaking a 300-year union with London, a "yes" vote would be a momentous decision for the 5.3 million people of Scotland. But on the wet streets of Glasgow, enthusiasm was conspicuously thin on the ground on Tuesday.

"Look at the state of this place. Independence wouldn't make a bit of difference," said Brian Reilly as he stood in the rain surveying what used to be his jewellery store, halfway along a row of sad-looking shops and shuttered pubs in Calton, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.

"There's no money. Junkies everywhere. The politicians haven't done anything for this place," said the 54-year-old, who was forced to shut his business in February.

Alcoholism, drug abuse and pockets of appalling deprivation -- a legacy of the decline of the city's once proud shipyards, steelworks and other heavy industries -- have earned Glasgow a medical term for its sharp health inequalities — the "Glasgow effect".

And with a third of its households completely out of work, Glasgow is Britain's capital of joblessness, according to official figures released this month.

But money has been poured into regenerating the city in the last two decades, and next year it hosts the Commonwealth Games.

Gleaming, futuristic buildings now cluster along the River Clyde, while the government markets the 600,000-strong city as a hub for specialist manufacturing and digital media companies.

'This would be the worst divorce in history'

Glasgow is home to one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world -- and many of the students who thronged there on Tuesday, as the new academic year got underway, had strong opinions on the coming referendum.

"I'm going to vote no," politics student Maria Ure told AFP. "There's too many unanswered questions if we split. Are we going to have our own army? Are we going to be a part of the UN and NATO?"

Shaun Gallacher, bravely wearing sunglasses despite the Glasgow chill, agreed.

"I think this would be the worst divorce in history," he said as he distributed flyers outside the university for a local gay club night.

"We'd be screwed. I think Scotland has a better chance on the world stage as part of the UK. You don't want to be this tiny little country that has no say on anything."

But his friend Jodie McKenna said she'd be voting for independence.

"Scotland has more to offer on its own," she said.

Opinion polls suggest only around a third of Scots currently intend to vote "yes", although Scotland's nationalist leader Alex Salmond claims a year is plenty of time to win over a majority with his economic and political arguments.

He has promised an independent Scotland that is not only rich because of its North Sea oil reserves, but more egalitarian — a vision that appeals to some of the nation's traditionally left-wing voters.

"We're a socialist country by nature," said Mick McNulty, a 59-year-old electrician, nursing a pint in a Glasgow pub.

Like many Scots, he will never forgive late Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher for overseeing the demise of Scotland's heavy industry, and is not a fan of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government.

"If it's between enduring decades more Tory government and independence, I think Scots might vote for independence," McNulty told AFP.

But in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Pollokshields, there was little appetite for a "yes" vote.

"Scotland wouldn't survive on its own -- but a lot of (pro-independence) Scots aren't thinking like that, they're thinking emotionally," said June Charlton, one of a group of ladies in their fifties having a coffee after their yoga class.

Her friend Julie Hanson jokingly suggested the separatists were aping Mel Gibson in the movie "Braveheart", in which he plays a heroic warrior who leads the Scots in a 13th century war against the English.

"It's just a Scottish macho thing to do," the yoga instructor said. "They haven't put any thought into it at all.

"I think it would be the worst thing ever for Scotland."