Scots Independence Campaign Nears Climax as Polls Diverge

Prime Minister David Cameron will return to Scotland for the second time in a week to fight for the future of the U.K. as campaigning ahead of the referendum on independence reaches its climax.

Activists were out in force across Scotland during the final weekend before the Sept. 18 ballot that might trigger the breakup of the union after more than three centuries. With opinion polls showing contradictory findings, both the “yes” and “no” campaigns said they were poised to win, introducing further uncertainty to financial markets fixed on Scotland.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the head of the pro-independence campaign, and Alistair Darling, the former U.K. chancellor of the exchequer who fronts the Better Together group, reprised arguments today over the economy, the pound and state-funded health care if Scots back independence. With the debate increasingly polarized, the focus now is on appealing to undecided voters in the final three days of the campaign.

“Independence may have its costs, although these have yet to be demonstrated convincingly; but it will also have its benefits,” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist who was part of a panel that advised Salmond, said in an op-ed published in the Glasgow-based Sunday Herald newspaper. The Sunday Herald backs the “yes” campaign.

Cameron is due to deliver a speech in Scotland tomorrow after convening an emergency cabinet committee in London today following the release of a video purporting to show the killing of David Haines, a Scot, by Islamic State.

Polling Uncertainty

The murder of the Scottish aid worker and how it might influence voting added another layer of uncertainty to the referendum. Both Salmond and Darling addressed it in separate interviews on BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr show.” Salmond said he planned to hold a meeting of the devolved Scottish government’s own emergency committee to discuss the matter.

No fewer than four polls were released over the weekend, three of which continued to show the “no” campaign ahead. The fourth, a survey by ICM Research for the Sunday Telegraph, put “yes” ahead by the greatest ever margin, leading by eight percentage points, 54 percent to 46 percent, when excluding undecided voters.

It followed a poll by Survation for the Better Together campaign that put the pro-U.K. group ahead by the same margin. A survey by Opinium Research for the Observer newspaper showed “no” on 53 percent to 47 percent, while Panelbase for the Sunday Times put the lead at 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent, within the margin of error making it a statistical tie.

Jobs Warning

Speaking on the “Andrew Marr show,” Salmond said he expects the “yes” campaign to win a “substantial majority” in the referendum. He also signaled that he wouldn’t ask Scots to vote again in the event of a “no” result, describing the referendum as a “once-in-a-generation, perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Scotland.”

Darling accused Salmond of doing a “premature victory lap” and warned that 1 million jobs depend on Scotland staying in the U.K.

“We still don’t know how we can ensure that we don’t lose jobs, with firms saying they are going to take their headquarters out of Scotland -- that would be a disaster for Scotland,” Darling said. “We still don’t know how we are going to replace the additional funding we get for the National Health Service. We don’t know who is going to pay pensions.”

The tightening of the race in its final fortnight has led to increased volatility in the financial markets, with forecasts the pound could tumble in the event of a “yes” vote.

Volatile Campaign

While the government denies it is preparing contingency plans for the referendum outcome, signs of the concern are growing. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has said he will return early from a gathering of central bankers and finance ministers in Cairns, Australia, so that he can be in London in time for the vote. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne canceled his trip.

The contradictory polling evidence underscored the volatile nature of the campaign as it enters the final stretch before a ballot that could result in Europe’s newest sovereign state.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and a polling expert, cautioned on his blog that the ICM poll putting “yes” well ahead “comes with a substantial health warning.” Citing the small polling sample conducted over the Internet, he said the findings, “while not wholly disregarded, should clearly be viewed with caution.”

Activists were out in force across Scotland during the final weekend of campaigning, with “yes” stands handing out stickers competing with “No, Thanks” banners and balloons. Both sides said their door-to-door canvassing showed that they were ahead.

Undecided Voters

In Edinburgh, there was a march yesterday by thousands of Orange Order members to rally support for the union, while Glasgow’s main shopping thoroughfare was taken over by a mass demonstration in support of independence.

The prime minister’s Conservatives, his Liberal Democrat coalition partner and the main opposition Labour Party are all stepping up their campaigning against independence while the nationalists compete with them to persuade undecided voters.

The polls vary widely on the number of people who remain to be persuaded by either side, with as many as 23 percent of voters undecided, according to a Sept. 9 survey. That variation reflects the difficulty of conducting polling for a referendum, where there isn’t a past voting record for calibration.

With the polls indicating a tight race, research published on Sept. 11 by Ipsos-Mori based on interviews suggested five reasons for the switch to “yes” from “no” in the final stretch of campaigning. It found that the “positive vision” and grass-roots nature of “yes” was helping to “win hearts and minds,” while the “negativity of the ‘no’ campaign has turned away would-be supporters.”

Negative Fallout

The Sunday Telegraph cited a survey of FTSE 100 company chairmen conducted on its behalf which found that nearly 80 percent said a “yes” vote would have a “significant negative economic effect” on the U.K. That followed warnings that an independent Scotland would suffer an economic contraction of as much as 5 percent of gross domestic product, lose many if not all its banks to London, the pound, plus jobs in defense and other industries, while experiencing wilting oil revenues, rising prices at supermarkets and higher mobile-phone charges.

Stiglitz, in his op-ed, cast doubt on the assertions made about Scotland post-independence, singling out fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s comments about economies of scale.

“By an order of magnitude, far more important than size is the pursuit of the right policies,” said Stiglitz. “There is, in fact, little basis for any of the forms of fear-mongering that have been advanced.”

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