KILMARNOCK Scotland (Reuters) - With Edinburgh’s old town abuzz with tourists and its trendy restaurants full, the Scottish capital has an air of prosperity that explains why so many of its residents are happy with their lot and unwilling to risk the changes independence may bring.
But in Kilmarnock, 50 miles (80 kms) west, it is a different story. The once proud industrial town has been named the worst place to live in Scotland, battling high unemployment and with pawnbrokers and discount stores dominating its shopping center.
The contrast between the two highlights the wide social divide among Scots ahead of a Sept. 18 referendum, when Scottish residents will decide whether to leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years to become an independent country.
Although the nationalists are still behind, they have started to gain some ground in opinion polls this year, for the first time giving the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) a chance to realize its 80-year-old dream of independence.
Opinion polls have shown residents of Scotland’s most deprived neighborhoods are more likely to support independence but less likely to vote, making them a target group as both sides race to woo the undecided and typical non-voters.
While many in Edinburgh are worried about the risks that independence might bring, some residents of Kilmarnock see little to lose and believe change can only be for the good.
“It can’t be any worse than it is just now,” said Steven Campbell, 44, a firefighter, as he walked around the 14th Century Dean Castle on the outskirts of Kilmarnock with his wife Denise and newborn daughter Alexx.
Unlike Edinburgh, Kilmarnock would not be on many tourist schedules with little to celebrate in local industry. Its main attraction is the Burns Monument that commemorates poet Robert Burns, whose most famous work was published in the town.
Edinburgh is a major draw for tourists with figures this month showing the ancient city with its fortress castle, Royal Mile with rows of tartan gift shops, and cosy pubs is one of the four most popular British towns for visitors outside of London.
The city, about 400 miles (650 kms) north of London, was named the second best place to live in the United Kingdom last year in a quality of living index by price comparison website MoneySuperMarket, topped only by Bristol in southwest England.
Kilmarnock, by contrast, was last year named the least desirable place to live in Scotland in “Crap Towns Returns”, a book that names and shames the “crappiest towns” in Britain.
Described as a “post-industrial wasteland”, the book looks back at the days that Kilmarnock was once an industrial powerhouse, famed for its carpets that were laid on the ill-fated RMS Titanic and home to a Johnnie Walker whisky plant.
But carpet-making ceased in Kilmarnock in 2005 and Diageo, owner of Johnnie Walker, closed the whisky factory in 2009 after nearly 200 years, leaving the town of 46,000 people struggling.
To add insult to injury, Kilmarnock gained UK-wide notoriety in 2010 when a TV documentary, “The Scheme”, featured scenes of drug abuse, violence and anti-social behavior in one of the many bleak, gray housing estates that ring the town. Critics slammed the show as exploitative “poverty porn”.
Data from the Scottish government shows that nearly one in five residents of East Ayrshire that encompasses Kilmarnock were income deprived in 2011 compared to one in 10 in Edinburgh.
Youth unemployment is a problem, with about 10 percent of people aged 16 to 24 in Kilmarnock claiming jobseekers allowance compared to 3.5 percent in Edinburgh. Groups of youths hang around outside discount stores and tattoo parlors in the wind-swept shopping center where many shops are empty or boarded up.
Overall unemployment in Scotland was 6.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to 6.8 percent for all Britain.
Cathy Jamieson, member of parliament for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, acknowledged Kilmarnock has its problems but stressed it has a proud cultural and industrial heritage, vibrant arts scene, and a strong local football club.
“These values and traditions helped shape the landscape and the people, and I think they are as strong today as they ever were,” Jamieson, a member of Britain’s opposition Labour party, told Reuters in an email exchange.
“I don’t think people here are any more likely to vote for independence than anywhere else .. What Kilmarnock needs, and what Scotland needs, is not independence, but a Labour Government in Scotland and across the UK.”
But some residents agree with the SNP that oil-rich Scots would be better off deciding themselves how to spend their money rather than being directed by lawmakers in distant London.
The SNP takes pride in running a more generous welfare state than the rest of the United Kingdom and has launched blistering attacks on welfare reforms and cuts initiated from London.
But the main British political parties say independence would risk businesses and jobs and leave a funding hole over welfare payments. There are also questions over what currency would be used in an independent Scotland, taxation and European Union membership.
Neal Ingram, who lives in Kilmarnock, said he would vote for secession as he did not think Scotland should be run by a Conservative-led government from London when Scots only voted for one Conservative out of 59 Scots in the British parliament.
“The people of Scotland should be able to make decisions for themselves and not be tied to an unrepresentative government,” Ingram told Reuters, proudly wearing a blue T-shirt blazoned with a white “Yes”, the independence campaign slogan.
Scots in lower socio-economic groups have become a target group in the campaign as opinion polls show rising support for independence eroding the “No” side’s strong lead, although the nationalists are still behind.
An ICM poll last month found 42 percent of voters intended to vote no and 39 percent vote for independence while 19 percent remained undecided. Other polls have found a wider gap.
A survey by Ipsos-Mori in March found 47 percent support for independence in Scotland’s most deprived areas compared to 41 percent support for staying in the union. Support for a “Yes” vote in the most affluent neighborhoods was only 20 percent compared to 71 percent opposition.
But figures from a Scottish Social Attitudes survey last year found working class Scots were less likely to vote, with only 73 percent of this group expecting to turn up at the September referendum compared to 90 percent of managers.
The economy has emerged as a key issue for Scots ahead of the referendum, with one poll finding a majority of Scots would back independence if it gave them 500 pounds more.
David Miller, a widower from Edinburgh aged in his 70s, said working class Scots were misguided if they believed that independence would help them.
“The poor will suffer the most if there is independence because the cost of going alone will increase inflation, you can bet your bottom dollar on that,” he told Reuters after volunteering at a pro-union Better Together canvassing session.
Not all Edinburgh residents agree.
Steve Wright, who runs a gift shop called Clans of Scotland on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is firmly pro-independence.
“The word No should not be in the Scottish vocabulary this year,” he said.
But despite increasing voter engagement as the debate escalates, some of the young people of Kilmarnock feared the vote in September would make little difference to their lives whatever the outcome with the town now so deprived.
“It is depressing here and people get stuck with no jobs and no hope. I left to work up north and I‘m back but I hope to go to Australia for a totally new start,” said 23-year-old chef Ryan McCutcheon.
(This story accompanies a Wider Image package of photographs that can be found at reut.rs/1p9LkK6)
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Angus MacSwan