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Will Scotland Leave The UK? One Cafe Sells Cakes to Find Out


Here's a referendum that would overturn centuries of history. Scotland is deciding whether to leave the United Kingdom. The U.K. is home to more than 60 million people. Scotland holds just about five million of those. They'll vote on independence in September.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Glasgow on the campaign.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On a bland street near Glasgow's central train station, the Riverhill Coffee Bar announces itself with a vibrant blue facade. It's a teeny sliver of a place.

One of the treats they sell is a Scottish sandwich cookie called an Empire Biscuit. Cafe manager Kirstie Gilmore recently decided to do a sort of experiment with the cookies.

KIRSTIE GILMORE: We actually done Empire Biscuits with yes and no, like a ballot.

SHAPIRO: Yes, for Scottish independence. No, for unity. At first the yeses outsold the nos. Then Gilmore started to think, maybe customers just prefer the blue yes icing to the red no.

GILMORE: So we had to kind of mix it up with the second batch. So we did some red yeses and blue nos.

SHAPIRO: So it was a really scientific study.

GILMORE: Yeah, there was more to it than just cake.

SHAPIRO: After about a week, the yes cakes still won. But the chef, Kenny Harkin, well, he's in the no camp.

KENNY HARKIN: I just think standing alone isn't necessarily the way forward. I think about unity is kind of what we need.

SHAPIRO: Two of the baristas would've bought the yes cookies. Gerard Loughrey says his support for independence mostly comes from a sense of Scottish pride.

GERARD LOUGHREY: I'm not saying that English culture is negative, drinking tea and crumpets. In Scottish culture going to ceilidhs and eating haggis, I mean, it's not...

SHAPIRO: Ceilidhs are dances, for people who might not know.

LOUGHREY: Yeah, ceilidhs like a sort of traditional Scottish get-together.

SHAPIRO: His co-worker, Mikie Lee Dale(ph) describes the cultural differences in even starker terms. He says many Scottish people still see the English as colonial empire-builders.

MIKIE LEE DALE: Well, I mean, by that, the masters who conquered the world and who therefore run that world.

SHAPIRO: So kind of arrogance?

DALE: Arrogance, yeah, totally, yeah.

SHAPIRO: The no campaign is very aware of this perception. Communications director Rob Shorthouse is Scottish born and bred.

ROB SHORTHOUSE: We don't talk about while we're - I'm a citizen of the United Kingdom or I'm British. We all identify ourselves as Scots and that's common across yes voters and no voters.

SHAPIRO: The Better Together Campaign staff is somewhat incongruously crammed into a beautiful old building that used to house Glasgow's Society of Lady Artists. There's an ornate ceiling and a fireplace as tall as a grown man. There are also flimsy cubicle walls, laptops and energy drinks. Shorthouse says his campaign has the majority of Scottish people on its side.

SHORTHOUSE: We're having this decision not - this referendum, not because of our, you know, our sort of large groundswell of public demonstrations and public opinion forcing the referendum on the government. The government have actually decided that this is what they want because it's a longstanding policy of theirs.

SHAPIRO: He means Scotland's government. The Scottish National Party unexpectedly won the elections here in 2011. That opened the door for this vote fulfilling a centuries-old dream of Scottish nationalists. The Yes Scotland campaign sits in offices just a few blocks away from Better Together. Blair Jenkins is the group's chief executive.

BLAIR JENKINS: Scotland has never voted on whether or not it wishes to be part of the United Kingdom. There's no doubt, as a healthy democratic process, just the opportunity of voting on this is huge.

SHAPIRO: Jenkins accuses his opponents of a roadblock strategy, threatening to take away the pound, the BBC, European Union membership if Scotland goes independent. He calls Better Together, Project Fear.

JENKINS: And I think the strategy of the people who want a no vote is to simply say, you know, however attractive this road is, you can't go down that road because here are all the obstacles. And I think people resent the notion that there seems to be an attempt to force them to vote in a particular way.

SHAPIRO: If that resentment exists, it doesn't seem to be reflected in the polls. The latest survey shows support for unity well above 50 percent. Support for independence is in the low 30s with around 10 percent undecided. Mark Shepherd is a political scientist at Strathclyde University here in Glasgow. He has studied other independence referendums around the world.

MARK SHEPHERD: In the majority of cases, as you approach the referendum date, people tend to gravitate back towards the kind of status quo, better the devil you know kind of position.

SHAPIRO: So it's an uphill climb for the yes folks, but Shepherd says even if they lose and Scotland remains in the UK, this debate may dramatically reshape the dynamic within the United Kingdom. He says this vote will have major repercussions for Scotland no matter the outcome. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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