MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The battle over the future of the United Kingdom has begun. Scotland's government is run by separatists determined to end their nation's 300-year union with England. Their leader has long promised a referendum on independence. And this week, he finally named a time: the fall of 2014. But will it pass?
NPR's Philip Reeves went to a coastal town in the North East of Scotland to test the waters.
(SOUNDBITE OF FISH MERCHANTS CALLING OUT)
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Fraserburgh is a quiet town. But mornings here get off to a noisy start. The town's fish merchants gather before dawn to buy and sell last night's catch.
(SOUNDBITE OF FISH MERCHANTS CALLING OUT)
REEVES: This is one of Europe's biggest fishing ports. Outside, in the harbor, rain whistles in from the North Sea. Seals cruise among the fishing boats, searching in the darkness for scraps.
A man drags a crate of monkfish to a nearby van. Pulled low over his eyes is a wooly hat emblazoned with the Scottish flag.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)
REEVES: This place is not much like anywhere in England. Yes, there are a few bars, cafes with Wi-Fi, some fancy cars. And also, just outside town, a magnificent golden beach. But this is a close-knit, traditional community, a sprawl of low dark granite homes separated from London by 600 miles and centuries of culture and history. The locals speak a dialect the English cannot understand.
BRIAN TOPPING: A young girl is a quine or a quiney. So if you say, how are you, my dear, or how are you, little girl, you'd go, you'd say, fit like my quine. And a boy is a loon or a loonie. So you'd say, how are you, my son, or how are you, young boy, you'd say, fit like my loonie.
REEVES: Brian Topping's a Scottish nationalist with a career in local politics that spans nearly three decades.
TOPPING: I live and breath for Scotland to be independent. Every person I help, everything that I do is to hope and further Scotland becoming an independent nation.
REEVES: Scotland already has limited autonomy; its own educational system, judiciary, and a parliament run by Scottish nationalists. Key issues, though - finance, defense, foreign policy - remain in the hands of the British government. That's the problem, says Topping.
TOPPING: We don't really want to be told by people who we didn't elect, down in the Westminster government - and no disrespect to them. We are a proud nation. We should be able to be in charge of our own destiny, make our own decisions.
REEVES: Fraserburgh is a nationalist stronghold. Polls suggest in Scotland, generally, only about a third of the population favors completely severing ties with England. Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, is worried those numbers might grow. Cameron's ardently opposed to the breakup of the United Kingdom. He's begun the battle for Britain by picking a fight with the Scottish nationalists over their referendum's timing and legality. He has the support of all the big three main British political parties.
Mid-morning in Fraserburgh and workmen are boarding up the windows of a vacant building. A handful of shops in the main street have already closed. Britain's economic stagnation is taking its toll here. For the first time, Fraserburgh has had to shut down several key tourist attractions, like museums, for the winter months. Ian Watson, chair of the Fraserburgh Development Trust, says public spending cuts have hit hard.
IAN WATSON: I think they've just more or less taken a broad brush approach and just cut about everything (unintelligible) a sensible way to go. They probably would have needed to be much more selective and consider the economies and local areas like Fraserburgh.
REEVES: Scotland, it's financed by a block grant from London. Some here believe the British government's heavy austerity cuts are bolstering Scotland's separatists. In Fraserburgh, there are some pockets of prosperity. The smell of beer drifts out of a small brewery. The BrewDog Company was founded less than five years ago by two young local men. They started out on a shoestring, making craft beers with wacky names and the slogan Beer for Punks. It's turned into a multimillion dollar business. One of the founders, 29-year-old James Watt used to skipper a fishing boat. Watt favors more autonomy for Scotland, but adds...
JAMES WATT: I think complete independence might make us a bit isolated and make it more difficult for businesses.
REEVES: If Scotland becomes independent, it'll likely join the European Union and might have to join the euro. Bad idea, says Watt.
WATT: I think the E.U.'s future is in severe jeopardy at the moment. And I think the single currency has been an unmitigated disaster.
REEVES: Watt says this is simply not the moment to jump ship and bail out of the U.K. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Fraserburgh.
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