Historic Stirling sees battle for Scotland's future

Alex Salmond holding a sign: Alex Salmond has launched a rival party called Alba to the SNP, vowing to push for a referendum immediately © Andy Buchanan Alex Salmond has launched a rival party called Alba to the SNP, vowing to push for a referendum immediately

Bullet marks in Stirling's grey-stone walls testify to past battles between Scotland and England, and another momentous fight is now under way in the picturesque university city. 

The country votes for a new Scottish Parliament on Thursday, with the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) seeking public backing for another independence referendum.

It is betting that Brexit -- Britain's divisive departure from the European Union -- and the coronavirus pandemic have changed the national mood after a "no" vote in 2014.

Nicola Sturgeon smiling for the camera: Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's SNP is predicted to become the largest party in the Edinburgh parliament © Jane Barlow Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's SNP is predicted to become the largest party in the Edinburgh parliament

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's SNP is predicted to become the largest party in the Edinburgh parliament but may not achieve a majority without forming a coalition.

Her foes are vying for the support of those who dislike the idea of pushing for a split from the UK once the virus is under control.

But the battle for hearts and minds is taking place largely behind closed doors due to Covid restrictions. Locals have only just begun to venture out again to pubs, cafés and shops.

a castle surrounded by trees: The people of Sterling strongly opposed in dependence in a 2014 referendum © Andy Buchanan The people of Sterling strongly opposed in dependence in a 2014 referendum

In Stirling, 30 miles (50 kilometres) from Edinburgh, a "Vote SNP" poster in a flat window near the railway station is one of the few signs related to the upcoming vote. 

- 'Strangest election' -

Young SNP activists shivered on a chilly afternoon as Alyn Smith, who represents the party at the UK parliament in London, chatted to locals.

"It's the strangest election I've ever fought," he told AFP, taking a break from campaigning for local councillor Evelyn Tweed who is hoping to become the city's latest SNP lawmaker.

Parties have agreed "to be very gentle with people and not knock on their doors actively", but activists are out and "chatting to people as we see them."

"It's now starting to feel more like an election," his 30-year-old constituency organiser, Lee Robb, added.

Residents of the city strongly opposed independence in the 2014 referendum. Two years later, they also rejected Brexit, like Scotland as a whole. 

Set among dramatic hills and the River Forth, Stirling's cobbled streets lead up to its castle, repeatedly besieged by English forces over the centuries. 

Bullet marks on the nearby Church of The Holy Rude are attributed to English republican leader Oliver Cromwell's troops.

Nearby is the Wallace Memorial, a towering landmark commemorating a 13th-century victory by "Braveheart" William Wallace in the First War of Scottish Independence.

For Smith, the city's history is symbolic, but the election "is about the future". 

"And Scotland's best future is as an independent state within the European Union," he added. 

The SNP is backing a gradual push for independence, sensing the public currently has other priorities: the economy, recovery from the pandemic and Brexit. 

However its mercurial former leader and ex-first minister Alex Salmond has launched a rival party, Alba, vowing to push for a referendum immediately. 

- 'All to play for' -

Scotland allows 16-year-olds to vote in parliamentary and local elections and first-time voter Leigh, 17, said she backs the SNP, because she can go to university without paying tuition, unlike in England. 

"I'm pro-independence and so's everybody else I know," she added.

Local Conservative activist Jess Insall, an 18-year-old apprentice accountant, conceded the SNP has had a strong youth following but said "it is all to play for". 

"Climate change is something we're really strong on and good jobs, affordable housing are things that young people want," she added.

Several older residents complained no party fully represented them.

Sitting outside a shopping centre, Henrietta Mearns, 78, said Sturgeon "performed quite well" on the pandemic, but "I don't want the split in the UK".

Matthew Morris, 38, who works in a restaurant, said he does not want another referendum in the near future, but fears having a "wasted vote".

"If you don't want to vote for the SNP, you've not got any choice because a Scotsman is not going to vote for the Tories and who's voting for Alex Salmond? The man's clearly an eejit (idiot)."

Morris said he formerly backed Labour -- once the main party in Scotland, until Salmond led the SNP to victory in 2007 -- but was not pleased with the new leadership under Keir Starmer.

The pro-EU SNP feels that Brexit has pushed more Scottish people towards independence.

Relatively prosperous Stirling has been hard-hit by Brexit, particularly its university, MP Smith said.

"We've got a lot of fintech and a lot of services which are sold across the whole of the European Union," he said, while farmers are "having real difficulty exporting product". 

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Historic Stirling sees battle for Scotland's future