Scottish Independence Vote Sparks Celebrity Civil War

Mel Gibson Sir William Wallace Braveheart - P 2012

Mel Gibson Sir William Wallace Braveheart - P 2012

Gerard Butler and Sean Connery back independence, while English stars from David Bowie to J.K. Rowling ask the Scots to stay

On Thursday, residents of Scotland will go to the ballot box to vote on independence. A yes vote would split Scotland from the United Kingdom, end more than 300 years of union with England and give birth to Europe's newest nation.

With polls indicating a neck-and-neck vote, the issue of Scottish independence has split the unity of British celebrities. Major names on both sides of the border have come out for or against the union, counting on their popularity to help swing the eventual decision.

The loudest calls for Scotland to stay have come from English stars. Some 200 of them, including Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Judi Dench, Simon Cowell, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Coogan, Dominic West and Patrick Stewartsigned a letter in August addressed to "Dear Voters of Scotland" that said how much they valued "our bonds of citizenship with you."

Other prominent anti-independence voices include Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who donated some $1.68 million to the "no" campaign — known as Better Together — and comedian and actor Eddie Izzard (Ocean's Thirteen), who staged a one-off show in Edinburgh, "Scotland, Please Don't Go," to raise money for the "no" camp.

One of the first "no" celebrities out of the gate was David Bowie, who took the unusual route of getting model Kate Moss to read out a statement asking Scotland to "stay with us" while accepting Bowie's award at the Brit Awards in February. Among the latest to add his voice has been celebrity entrepreneur Richard Branson, who wrote on his Virgin company website that it was "imperative" that Scotland stayed in the Union, but adding that the country wanted and needed greater powers.

Some in the land of Braveheart have been less than receptive to these appeals. Twitter users lashed out at Rowling and Bowie (one tweet told the Ziggy Stardust man to “go back to Mars”) and the “Dear Voters” letter was soon branded “patronizing” and coming from rich, elite English celebrities out of touch with the lives of ordinary Scots. “If this doesn’t make Scotland vote for independence, I don’t know what will,” said British historian Stephen Fielding about the letter.

Some prominent Scots have also spoken up in favor of staying together. Singer Rod Stewart, comedian Billy Connelly and actor Ewan McGregor have voiced their concerns regarding a split. McGregor, whose reps said he wasn’t available to comment for this article, earlier claimed that while he loved Scotland with all his heart, he also liked the idea of Great Britain and "I don’t know that it wouldn’t be a terrible shame to break it all up."

The "no" campaign has suggested many prominent Scots are against independence but are scared to speak up for fear of a backlash from nationalists. "It’s easier to come out as gay than it is to come out as a unionist," joked Scottish comedian Rory Bremner.

Indeed, many of Scotland's most famous figures are remaining on the fence ahead of the Sept. 18 vote.

X-Men actor James McAvoy, Doctor Who star David Tennant and Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat, who all live outside Scotland and therefore don’t get to vote, have opted to stay out of the argument. Tennant said that having left Scotland, he had “forfeited” his right to "tell Scottish residents how to run the country," while McAvoy, who was also unavailable for comment for this article, told The Scotsman newspaper that it wasn’t the place of actors to comment.

"I won’t be getting involved at all. It’s just counterproductive to my job, it’s not what I do, and I don’t think it’s helpful to have me involved in it," McAvoy said.

Some English stars, too, have said they won't be offering an opinion on the matter. "I have absolutely nothing to say about that except that I do like haggis and you know if I have to cross a border to get my haggis, so be it," said Helen Mirren.

"If that's what they want, I wish them well. The world will turn the same way with or without their independence," Ireland-born Pierce Brosnan, whose father was Scottish, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Kevin Macdonald, the director of The Last King of Scotland and a London-based Scot unable to cast a vote, told The Hollywood Reporter that in his "saner moments" he supports the "no" vote.

“Shouldn’t we be thinking about how to join the world up, not how to splinter it apart?” he said. “That said, in my less rational moments, I must admit I am tempted by the romance myself, tempted by simple curiosity about what an independent Scotland would look like and whether it would indeed be some sort of Scandinavian-socialist heaven.”

There are fewer A-listers on Scotland's "yes" camp, but the pro-independence movement can count on the support of 300 star Gerard Butler and former James Bond Sean Connery.

“As a Scot with a lifelong love of Scotland and the arts, I believe the opportunity of independence is too good to miss,” Connery said in an interview with The Sun earlier in the year.

Butler added his Spartan muscle to Connery’s suave, saying: “I can’t see any reason why Scotland shouldn’t be independent. It’s a different country with different attitudes, people and outlook, so why not?”

Other prominent "yes" supporters include Good Wife star Alan Cumming and character actor Brian Cox (The Bourne Identity), both of whom have actively campaigned for Scottish independence.

“It’s a historic moment for us all, we now have a chance in this country to have our own destiny in our own hands,” Cumming said while campaigning on the streets of Glasgow last week.

Meanwhile, one of the most renowned fictional Scots finally came out with his eight-fingered, yellow-skinned support for independence. In a YouTube video released in recent days, The Simpsons' Groundskeeper Willie ripped off his shirt to reveal the words "Aye or Die" printed on his chest. "That's not a tattoo; it's a birthmark," he declared.

The "yes" campaign has so far not received full-out support from media mogul Rupert Murdoch, which some had tipped to come out in favor of independence. The grandson of a Scot, Murdoch has repeatedly tweeted statements appearing to back Scottish independence. "Scottish independence means a huge black eye for the whole political establishment," read one. “Scots better people than to be dependants [sic] of London” said another.

While many observers expected Murdoch's tabloid The Scottish Sun, Scotland's biggest-selling newspaper, to come out officially in support of independence and call on its 250,000 readers to vote yes in the independence vote, it expressed a fairly neutral stance this weekend.

The consequences of an independent Scotland for the media industry are largely unknown. Creative Scotland, which supports all forms of the arts in the region, could expect a budget boost under an independent, and nationalist, government in Edinburgh. At the moment, Scotland is the only European country without its own film agency and the region lags behind similarly sized nations in terms of production. Scotland makes just five or six films a year, compared with around 20 in neighboring Ireland, which invests close to $10 million a year in local production, compared with just over $6 million in Scotland.

But an independent Scotland could mean the country no longer qualifies for European film funding and tax breaks. The new nation will have to renegotiate its membership in the European Union, putting in danger international shoots such as Starz's Outlander, ITV's Downton Abbey and HBO's Game of Thrones, which choose Scotland as a location in part because of the beneficial tax regime.

A free Scotland could also endanger the BBC. In a letter to British newspaper The Guardian last month, former BBC director general John Birt warned that a yes vote would mean more budget cuts at the public broadcaster as the BBC loses license fee revenue north of the border. “Fundamental changes to the BBC services would be unavoidable,” Birt wrote.

So Britain waits, in hope and in fear, as the 4.3 million Scots registered to vote go to the polls on Thursday. Whatever the outcome, Scotland, and Britain, are unlikely to ever be quite the same again.

Rhonda Richford in Paris and Georg Szalai in London contributed to this report.