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Scotland Mulls Split From United Kingdom In Knife-Edge Vote

  • Kathleen Moore

GLASGOW, Scotland -- At a high-rise housing project in central Glasgow, supporters of Scottish independence climb out of two minibuses to go door-to-door.

The dozen or so volunteers who fan out through the project include a geologist taking time off from his job, a father-and-daughter pair of Welsh nationalists, and 67-year-old retired local government worker David Peutherer.

"[Is there] anything that could convince you absolutely.... Anything I can say just to push you that wee bit?" Peutherer asks a woman who says she's leaning "yes" but is still not sure. He then lays out two key "yes" arguments -- that an independent Scotland will do more to protect pensions and state-funded health care.

There are just two days to go before Scotland decides in a historic referendum whether to leave the United Kingdom after more than three centuries of political union.

With the "yes" camp making dramatic gains in the polls in recent weeks -- coming from lost-cause territory to within striking distance of victory -- the result of the September 18 ballot is too close to call and both sides are making a last-ditch scramble for votes.

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer...and it's all because of who's in government," says "yes" voter Louise Kemlo (right), pictured in Glenrothes with fellow "yes" voter Mary Kiersten.

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer...and it's all because of who's in government," says "yes" voter Louise Kemlo (right), pictured in Glenrothes with fellow "yes" voter Mary Kiersten.

Pro-independence leader Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, has called the referendum a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity for Scotland, while U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, in an emotional appeal on September 15, urged voters not to break "this family apart."

The vote is the culmination of a process that first led, in 1999, to devolution in the form of the Scottish Parliament. After the secessionist Scottish National Party won a resounding victory in Scottish elections in 2011, the U.K. and Scottish governments agreed that Scotland would ask its people if they wanted to leave the United Kingdom.

Nine Things To Know About The Scottish Referendum

The "yessers" argue that Scotland will be better off if decisions about its future are taken by the people who live there. They say independence will ensure Scotland gets the governments it votes for -- unlike U.K.-wide elections that have produced Conservative governments even as Scotland remains solidly left-leaning. And an independent Scotland, the argument goes, would use Scotland's huge oil wealth to ensure public services and a welfare safety net that pro-independence campaigners say have been undermined by successive U.K. governments.

"Customers in England and Wales are asking, 'What will happen? Which currency? Will there be extra paperwork?'" says "no" voter John Penman, marketing and sales director for Fifab in the eastern Scottish town of Glenrothes.

"Customers in England and Wales are asking, 'What will happen? Which currency? Will there be extra paperwork?'" says "no" voter John Penman, marketing and sales director for Fifab in the eastern Scottish town of Glenrothes.

The "yes" movement has been fueled in part by widespread anger over policies such as changes to welfare -- including stricter criteria for disability benefits -- that the center-right U.K. government has argued are necessary to put more people to work but which are described by many in Scotland as an assault on society's neediest.

It's about "independence for ourselves to decide how we want to run the country, what our values are," says "yes" volunteer Stewart Fordyce, 30. "I think the basic [characteristic of] the Scottish people is generosity, kindness, fairness. And that's what we have a chance to deliver here."

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," says 53-year-old Glenrothes resident Louise Kemlo, who's disabled. "It's ridiculous that in this day and age, the working class are working and they have got to rely on handouts, on food banks. That is absolutely ridiculous. It went out in World War I. It's ridiculous we're back to that and it's all because of who's in government."

Unionists, on the other hand, ask: Why break up what former Prime Minister John Major last week called the most successful union in history? They warn that there's no going back in the event of a "yes" vote, that separation would have costly ramifications, possibly for generations to come. Why give up the stability and security of economic union, they ask, for a risky leap into the unknown? And a number of major banks and big companies have added their voices against independence, saying it would cause too much uncertainty.

"I think it's a very dangerous concept, nationalism," says Marianne Stewart, 68, of Aberdeen. "I don't think it breeds unity. I don't think it breeds common sense. People just get carried away. The union has worked out reasonably well for Scotland."

The economic uncertainty is what worries "no" voter John Penman, marketing and sales director for Fifab, a company in the eastern town of Glenrothes that does precision sheet-metal work and makes machine components.

"Customers in England and Wales are asking, 'What will happen? Which currency? Will there be extra paperwork?'" Penman says. "The last thing any company needs is customers who are worried because immediately they have the possibility to go elsewhere."

Though the outcome is uncertain, there's one thing both sides agree on -- the debate has energized Scotland and people are politically engaged to an extent unusual in this established democracy. A full 97 percent of Scotland's 4.4 million eligible voters have registered, prompting expectations of a large turnout.

For "no" campaigners like Lewis Macdonald, this, too, is a hectic last dash to the finishing line.

On the last weekend before voting day, Macdonald, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, joined other prominent "no" figures, including a married couple of MPs (Joan Ruddock and Frank Doran), on a door-to-door session in an affluent area of Aberdeen.

Macdonald, whose team walks at a furious pace in a bid to knock on as many doors as possible, describes as a wakeup call a poll from early September showing the "yes" vote ahead for the first time.

"When they realized [independence] might happen, boy did that waken some people up," Macdonald says. "It's a great theoretical discussion to have when you're confident you know what the result is. But when the result became a question mark, it concentrated minds."

With most polls showing a slim lead for "no," he says he's confident but not complacent, and uses a metaphor appropriate for a city with a long fishing tradition.

"I'm going to fight for every vote," he says. "We need to make sure we land this fish and win this referendum."

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