EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Retired military general Norman Arthur represented Queen Elizabeth in his Scottish neighborhood and is passionate that the country should remain part of the United Kingdom. Stuart Campbell, a pro-independence campaigner based hundreds of miles south in England, disagrees fervently.
But both men have one thing in common: They have called in police after being threatened for their views.
The sinister side of the debate on Scotland’s Sept. 18 referendum is coming to the fore as opinion polls narrow on the outcome. The “Better Together” campaign is particularly keen to draw attention to this: Its leader has likened independence champion Alex Salmond to Kim Jong-il, the North Korean autocrat, blaming Salmond for a “culture of intimidation” in Scotland.
“I did hope the campaign would not get hotheaded and beastly,” said 83-year-old Arthur, in front of an open fire in the sitting room of his country estate home, framed photographs of the royal family on the windowsill. “But it has. But I won’t stop.”
Nationalists argue that oil-rich Scotland should be in charge of its own decisions and not have policies it opposes imposed by politicians in London. The rest of the United Kingdom says the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is strongest and best together.
On average, the latest polls show support for independence - the “Yes” vote - has risen to about 35 percent from 30 percent six months ago, while opposition has dropped to 46 percent from 50 percent and a significant number of voters remain undecided.
But as the poll nears, voters say the atmosphere is making it harder to discuss the issues.
Hostilities have intensified online, some cinemas have pulled campaign ads after viewers complained, posters are being defaced, neighbors have engaged in graffiti wars and the row has resulted in at least one pub brawl.
Pro-unionists have said a Yes vote would be “cataclysmic”, feeding the “forces of darkness” at a time when stability is needed. Independence campaigners accuse rivals of “the most miserable, negative, depressing and thoroughly boring campaign in modern political history.”
Some verbal attacks have been so vitriolic that the Church of Scotland has intervened to call for calm. Queen Elizabeth also supported church efforts to heal rifts, whatever the outcome.
“I have had the odd abuse but ... they are not going to stop me from speaking and they know it, so what they go after is the softer targets,” politician Alistair Darling, head of the Better Together campaign, told Reuters recently. “It really reflects very badly on Scotland.”
Arthur, in a military red-and-green tie and brass-buttoned blazer, said he decided to join the Better Together campaign late last year when he was talking to his wife about how opinion polls were narrowing.
The son of Scottish parents, he was educated at Eton, the English school of the elite, then at the military academy at Sandhurst before embarking on a career of nearly 40 years that took him to Ireland, Libya and Germany. After retiring in 1988, he was asked to become Lord Lieutenant of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbrightshire, a role that involves representing Queen Elizabeth in his county.
“It means a lot to me that Scots, English, Irish and Welsh all shed their blood together,” he said. “If that doesn’t bind the constituent parts of the UK together, nothing will.”
He and his wife went through their address books and wrote to everyone they knew. Then they plowed through 2,500 pages of “Who’s Who”, a guide to British society, to find anyone with a military or Scottish connection, and wrote to them.
“There is no issue today more important for us all ... let’s be passionate about this and hold to our great union,” read the one-page letter on notepaper headed with the Arthurs’ address.
The letter was posted online, the contact details visible. Arthur received a barrage of abuse. As a result, he said he had started to bolt the gate on his sprawling coastal estate and removed the name sign from the end of his drive.
Police said this was just a cautionary measure and there were no reports of violence.
But Arthur will not give in.
“This is pure patriotism to try to save the UK unharmed and something well above politics,” he said. “This will only get more passionate as the two sides draw closer together.”
In the genteel English city of Bath, with its elegant Georgian architecture, pro-independence campaigner Campbell - who was born in Scotland but has lived in England for 20 years -runs a popular blog and Twitter account which he uses to advance the nationalist campaign.
“Online it is not the happy, smiley campaign,” said the computer game journalist. “But we are aiming at a different market.”
Originally from near Edinburgh, he has abandoned his work to focus on the debate. He calls himself Reverend - the prefix used by clergy - but declined to say how he came to it.
The movement he represents is known as the cybernats for the nationalist campaign they conduct online. His blog, Wings Over Scotland, regularly takes issue with claims in campaign materials produced by pro-unionists.
“We want to highlight the lies being told, so it is more of a negative campaign, although we don’t make any personal attacks on people,” said Campbell. “That would not help us at all.”
In February, singer David Bowie was subjected to a volley of abuse on Twitter after he urged Scotland to “stay with us”, and businesses have suffered the same fate after raising the potential risks of independence.
A 25-year-old man is due to go on trial in August accused of posting a message on Twitter threatening to assassinate Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party that runs Scotland’s devolved parliament.
Campbell, dressed all in black with a thick, black beard, said he regularly receives abuse himself - extreme elements in both camps engage in “shouting on the Internet” that can be ignored. But in March, the threats reached such a level that he had to call in the police. He declined to give details.
A spokesman from Bath police said an investigation into malicious communications was ongoing.
In the village of Pitcairngreen in Perthshire, resident Thomas Huxley said he had put up a noticeboard for the purpose of general information. The next day he found it covered in “Yes” campaign notices. He responded by putting “No” signs up, arguing there should be balance.
Campaigners in Edinburgh go further. On one bridge, a poster slogan “Vote Yes to Independence” is altered to “Independence is the antichrist.”
By and large, the debate has not been violent, although First Minister Salmond, campaigning for independence, spoke too soon when he said “not a punch has been thrown.”Scottish police say they are investigating an assault on a nationalist member of the Scottish parliament in a pub in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in April. David Torrance was reportedly grabbed by the throat and pinned to the bar by a pro-union campaigner who had wanted to talk about the referendum.
Some business leaders say that as the debate has become more heated, people are not voicing opinions at business or social events, wary of potential clashes.
“In coming months it will only get more divisive,” said Owen Kelly, chief executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise, which represents the financial services industry in Scotland.
“I think there will need to be some serious political leadership in order to bring people together, particularly if there is a close vote. They need to ensure these divisions do not endure.”
Additional reporting by Alistair Smout; Edited by Sara Ledwith