In the blustery town of Stornoway in Scotland’s Western Isles almost three hours by boat from the mainland, two friends chat on a doorstep framed by a No placard to their left and a Yes to their right.
In the small community where few are strangers, Anne-Lise Ingebretsen, who has spent half her life on the Isle of Lewis, and Elspeth Curran, born and raised on the island, embody the divide over Scotland’s future and how nothing can be taken for granted. On Sept. 18, Curran will vote for independence, while Ingebretsen will put a cross in the box to stay in the U.K.
“I’m voting no because I think with my head, not with my heart,” said Ingebretsen, a pensioner whose father was Norwegian and who describes herself as “old enough to have led an interesting life.” “We work better as a union.”
Curran, a 58-year-old florist whose small store overlooking the harbor is adorned with the white St. Andrew’s cross on blue of the Scottish flag, says her decision is motivated by gut feeling. “It feels like the right thing to do,” she said.
With less than four weeks to go before the referendum, nothing can be taken for granted. All opinion polls suggest Scots will opt to remain in the 307-year-old union, yet in most enough people are undecided to cause an upset.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, one of the key figures in the U.K government behind the No campaign, said more work remains to be done. While an ICM poll for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper on Aug. 17 put the anti-independence lead at 10 percentage points, 55 percent to 45 percent, it narrowed by four points from a month before.
“I’m not complacent at all,” Alexander said in an interview this week at Harris Tweed Hebrides, which produces one of Scotland’s most famous exports from the area. “There is a real job to be done to make sure that everyone who cares about the United Kingdom is motivated to go out and vote.”
The nationalists want control over Scotland’s finances as well as defense and energy policy, which are currently set by London. Their opponents, all three main U.K. political parties, say Scotland is better off with the status quo because it has the security of a larger country.
The debate has focused on the economy, with the U.K. saying Scotland won’t be allowed to keep the pound and will be worse off if it becomes independent, claims the nationalists have rebuffed with the help of a panel of advisers including Nobel-prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and James Mirrlees.
Nationalist leader Alex Salmond will face Alistair Darling, the former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer who heads the “Better Together” campaign, on Aug. 25 in their second televised debate this month. Salmond came under fire in their first confrontation on Aug. 5 for failing to come up with a credible plan for Scotland’s future currency.
Back in the Western Isles, home to the greatest proportion of Gaelic speakers in the country and where road signs are in two languages, polls show support for the U.K. is hardening, though few people are certain of the outcome.
The No campaign has the largest lead of anywhere in Scotland in the Highlands and Islands, according to the ICM poll. Including undecided voters, the lead nationwide was 12 percentage points, though in the region it was 36 points.
In Stornoway, a town first founded by the Vikings in the early ninth century, No voter Ingebretsen had pulled out a chair in her doorway to enjoy a brief interlude of sunshine. Both she and Yes voter Curran were dressed for rain just in case. A downpour is rarely far off on an island where temperatures average 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit) in August.
Thirty minutes away by car at Shawbost on the west of the island, Harris Tweed Chief Executive Officer Ian MacKenzie said the referendum next month was “a big uncertainty” for his business. It employs more than 200 people and relies on exports to more than 60 countries.
“Though the polls still point to a victory for No, there’s a long way to go yet, and one of the possibilities staring us in the face is that Scotland could vote for independence,” said MacKenzie, a former weaver whose father taught him the traditional craft. “Almost everything we make goes through England. We would be facing at least one extra customs barrier, as well as uncertainty on the currency.”
Alexander, who was speaking during a three-day tour of Scotland to shore up support for a pro-U.K. vote, reiterated plans to hand more power to the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, seeking to stave off support for independence.
The leaders of the U.K.’s main political parties on Aug. 5 signed a pledge guaranteeing the transfer of more policy making powers, including tax-raising abilities, to Scotland should residents vote to stay in the union.
“I want to see a federal system for the U.K.,” said Alexander, who grew up in the Hebrides. “I wouldn’t just devolve income tax, I’d devolve capital gains tax, inheritance tax, the personal taxes. I’d like to see a situation where the Scottish parliament is responsible for raising more than half the majority of the revenue that is spent in Scotland.”
MacKenzie, a “proud” Scot who is “also proud to be British,” said removing the uncertainty created by the referendum would go a long way to assuage businesses.
“We are doing very well as a country as we are in an age where we’ve seen a world in turmoil,” he said. “I don’t see the point in erecting a further barrier between people.”