Late pleas by UK leaders appear to have turned the momentum of Scotland’s independence referendum to reject change. As Crikey goes to publication, two of 32 voting regions have declared for “no”, with the highly populated Edinburgh region expected to return a majority for remaining in the United Kingdom. Turnout for the vote is upwards of 84% of enrolled voters in some areas and near total participation in others. The result of early voting is currently running at 42% for “yes” and 58% for “no”.

About 4.3 million people, or 97% of eligible voters aged 16 and up of the 5.3 million people in Scotland, were enrolled to vote at 5579 polling booths from the Shetland Islands in the north to the border regions. Poll watchers are waiting for the big regions like Glasgow to report, as its half a million voters could swing the vote drastically.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown spoke passionately a day before the referendum in Glasgow. His intervention trumped Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim he would be heartbroken if Scotland went it alone. Before a crowd of party faithful, the Scottish MP aimed to banish nationalism in favour of co-operation within the UK: “Our patriotic vision [is] up against a nationalists’ vision that has only one aim in mind: to break every single constitutional and political link with our neighbours and friends in the UK, and we will not have this,” he said.

How did it get so close? Just three weeks ago Scotland’s independence referendum was struggling for credibility and space in the public debate. Polls were showing the campaign for keeping the union was playing an open misere.

“Remember, remember the 18th of September”, implored a blues rocker before playing his gig at an Edinburgh bar during the internationally renowned Fringe Festival in August, when 66% of Scots polled said they would vote against independence.

But within a week the fortunes of the separatist campaign shifted remarkably. The “yes” campaign, so called because it asks supporters to vote yes to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” on ballots, had rallied behind leader Alex Salmond after he savaged his opponent, Better Together leader Alistair Darling, in a televised debate. The polls narrowed to neck-and-neck, and the momentum was with “yes”.

A desire for democratic representation drives “yes” supporters away from their far bigger neighbour, England, which at 53.9 million has 10 times the population. Scottish people are unable to influence the nature of governments at Westminster to the level separatists desire, and they want their affairs to be run from the Scottish Parliament.

Stephen Finlayson, a “yes” supporting barman who spent most of his life in the west highland port town of Oban, said: “I think the next coalition [in Westminster] could be a coalition between the Conservatives and [ultra-nationalist] UKIP. I think that’s just bad for the Western world.”

And with a life expectancy in Scotland at 76.5 for men and 80.7 for women, below average for the UK (79.5 and 82.5 respectively), concern over moves to cut or privatise the National Health Service weighs on Scottish minds.

Supporters of the “no” campaign, on the other hand, think there is too much risk attached to splitting away from the United Kingdom. One “no” supporter, Emma Hodcroft, who was studded with “no” stickers while waving a Union Jack flag outside a central Edinburgh polling station, says as an HIV researcher she doesn’t want UK funding agreements that pay for her research compromised. “I don’t think that if Scotland becomes independent it will sink into the sea and collapse economically. But I do think it will be a much poorer nation,” she said.

Economic doom stories have found traction in major media outlets over the last few months. Economists have said that the separatist Scottish Nationalist Party has failed to present a plan for the new nation. David Smith, economics editor of The Sunday Times, said in his column that an independent Scotland would be saddled with crippling debt, or, if it chose to leave its debts with Westminster as separatists threatened, it could become a pariah.

Smith also pointed out that some of the key goals of independence, such as being able to set conditions for inflation and interest rates, would be out of reach under the current proposals, which do not seek to set up a Scottish central bank and currency but continue to use the pound sterling with the Bank of England running the show. He wrote:

“A vote for independence will be a vote for a Scotland that is poorer, more unstable, and will require deeper cuts in public spending than if it remains part of the UK.”

The “yes” campaign has tried to present a calm transition from union to independence where little changes — the pound wouldn’t change, the Queen would remain head of state, and borders would be porous and seamless. But to wavering, undecided voters it has appeared to be a lot of change and expense for no reason.

As the world’s media zeroed in on Scottish cities, residents of Edinburgh couldn’t round a corner without being vox-popped by Belgian news crews interested in impacts on separatist Flanders, or Spanish and French crews interested in Catalonia’s future.

Clearly, the referendum has ignited emotions on both sides.

A “yes” supporter, 23-year-old James Robertson, cast his vote this morning and spent the day at work with his stomach in knots waiting for the result. He will be one of thousands expected to stay up all night for the public counting parties at Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament. “I feel like a child at Christmas. And I want my stocking to be filled,” he said.

Outside the polling station, Emma Hodcroft said she was scared for the future of her industry. She she doesn’t want Scotland to be just “all right”. “We can be better than all right; we can be great.”


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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