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Key battlegrounds: Edinburgh

NOWHERE in Scotland is the referendum debate more bitterly divisive than in the capital, the city that in many ways most resembles London in its divisions, certainties and complacencies.

ON THE AGENDA: People in the business district off Lothian Road are debating vote.
ON THE AGENDA: People in the business district off Lothian Road are debating vote.

Edinburgh's largely affluent citizenry is often keen to play down its politics. The Burghers used to vote solidly Conservative, then discovered the LibDems and New Labour before they even found the SNP acceptable.

But there is a certain section of the capital's middle class - Anglicised through employment and private education, among the wealthiest group of people in Britain outside London, who pat themselves on the back for their small L liberalism.

But they will be voting No in quiet fear that their fellow citizens in Craigmillar, Pilton and Wester Hailes are voting Yes to affect radical change that would threaten their cosy existence that has survived the banking crisis for which some see them as culpable.

The city's huge financial centre is at the centre of this. In 2009 there were 38,200 working in the sector. This dipped to under 35,000 in 2011, but by 20121-13 the numbers employed had gone back up to all-time high levels.

This was not Ravenscraig or Linwood. A relatively small dip in numbers has ended up back at record levels of employment.

Against this backdrop these ordinary financial sector workers are carefully watching the way the vote is swinging. Around the lunch queues, restaurants and bars in the financial quarter of Lothian Road, it is clearly the most discussed topic outside of work.

However, when asked to give their views for a larger audience, the shutters quickly came down.

Most seemed more broadly defensive, as if the great crash had caused them to steer away from public debate. Many said they could not speak because there were company policies banning them from speaking to the media.

This is the biggest employment sector in the capital but many within it still feel embarrassed by the great crash.

There is also the prevailing view of the industry - Scottish Financial Enterprise has been broadly hostile to independence, arguing the sector would suffer from breaking away from the Union.

Most of the Scottish financial powerhouses have also expressed some concern at the prospect of independence, highlighting the uncertainty and lack of answers to key questions as reasons for failing to seek change.

Issues around currency, Europe and financial regulation have been highlighted. These views are not universal, but they are prevalent and clearly accepted across the strata of the industry, percolating down to ordinary workers in the sector.

There are exceptions. Scott, who works for one of the major banks, felt confident enough to say: "I see it as a very exciting period for Scotland.

"The ratings agencies see a significant and progressive future for an independent Scotland. In the past we have seen wars, upturns, downturns and recoveries.

"I see no reason why the entrepreneurial spirit should die out. Besides, the bigger danger is posed by Conservative proposals for a referendum taking us out of Europe. That is a real and present danger."

But what about uncertainties over currency? "We deal in billions of pounds in currencies worldwide every day. Why would that be a problem? And the ratings agency Standard & Poor's has recognised Scotland would be a successful economy, so the whole idea a currency union with England would be denied strikes me as a bluff."

Even the wider fear in his sector about regulation was seen as a non issue, given most rules come down from Europe. "Scottish regulation along these lines would be no big deal and a well-informed more local regulator could carry advantages," he said.

"And if the English decided to remove themselves from the EU there could be real boom for Scotland if it remained part of Europe."

It was an upbeat view but not necessarily the prevailing one. A woman working in the insurance sector said she felt there were too many unanswered questions and she would be voting No.

But Edinburgh is more than just its financial sector. Given that it is the headquarters of the Civil Service and given the way the Scottish Government has wooed that sector, there will be those at St Andrew's House and Victoria Quay who will be attracted to full statehood.

There is also a huge Higher Education sector, with four universities, including Edinburgh University, which is ranked among the best in the world. Here, too, opinion is divided on the dangers and opportunities of independence, with the strongest debate coming among the research community torn between those who are confident about continuing to win contracts on merit and those who fear losing out from what is currently a UK grants budget.

Other big employers and influences in the city are the legal profession, given the Supreme Courts, and tourism. The legal profession has always carried a large section of "small N nationalists" keen to maintain the distinctiveness of our system but often "small C conservatives in other matters."

The tourism sector can only benefit from Scotland's international profile being raised, as would bound to be the case in the event of the dawning of independence.

The city as a whole is a curious place. The peripheral schemes such as Wester Hailes, Muirhouse and Craigmillar tend to vote Labour and SNP. If the "missing million" are going to vote Yes we will see it in these schemes. Alex Salmond is certainly pinning his hopes on that. There will be a strong Yes support in other areas off the city centre around the Easter Road and Tynecastle football stadiums.

At the other extreme are parts of the city that are incredibly affluent - the Grange, most of Morningside, Cramond or Inverleith - where Yes votes will be few and far between.

But in Bohemian Edinburgh, trendy areas such as new Leith, Portobello and Stockbridge, or student areas such as the South Side, we may well see middle class people and their sons or daughters prepared to vote Yes.

Edinburgh probably has the most to gain in all of Scotland in becoming a true, international capital city, but it will be one of the most divided parts of the nation two weeks from now.

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