Scotland Votes as U.K.’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Voters in Scotland are deciding whether to seek independence from the U.K. in a ballot that may spell the end of a three-century-old union that once dominated the world from America to Australia and trigger a new era of self-determination across Europe.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time in schools, church halls, libraries and community centers across Scotland for the country’s 4.3 million-strong electorate, and will close at 10 p.m.

The referendum is the culmination of almost two years of competing arguments over the viability of an independent Scotland, its economic well-being, currency and international standing. Polls suggest the final result announced in Edinburgh tomorrow morning will come down to those voters who were not persuaded by either campaign and must now make their choice. A final survey published today showed opponents of independence ahead by 53 percent to 47 percent. The pound strengthened to the highest level versus the euro in two years.

“I don’t think it’s fair to make it about Scottishness,” said Emma Hodcroft, 28, a HIV researcher from Edinburgh, wearing earrings depicting the Scottish flag and the word “no.” “I love my country, but I don’t think emotion is the best way to make a decision; you need to know the facts.”

As she spoke, supporters of both sides conducted a last-minute campaign for votes outside a polling station just off the city’s Royal Mile, to the sound of a lone piper playing Flower of Scotland, a song played before Scottish rugby and soccer international games.

‘Seize It’

Alex Salmond, the head of the semi-autonomous Scottish government who leads the “yes” campaign, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who opposes independence along with the other main U.K. party leaders, used their final campaign speeches this week to stir passions that go beyond costings and statistics.

This is the “eve of the most exciting day in Scottish democracy,” Salmond told his campaign’s final rally last night in Perth, central Scotland. “This is our opportunity of a lifetime and we must seize it with both hands.”

At a polling station in a school on the shore of Glasgow’s Clyde river today, “yes” volunteers outnumbered their opponents more than three to one as two police officers kept a watchful eye on the proceedings.

Jennifer Walker, a 21-year-old bartender, said she was voting for independence “because Scotland’s vote in Westminster doesn’t count.”

“We’ll be able to keep the pound, and even if we can’t it’s not the end of the world,” said Walker, wearing a badge with the “yes” symbol superimposed on the colors of the Catalonia flag. “We can create our own currency.”

Cameron Plea

Cameron used his final appearance in Scotland before the vote, in Aberdeen on Monday, to plead with Scots to stay with the union and not risk a “painful divorce.” Appealing to hearts as much as heads, Cameron’s Labour predecessor, Gordon Brown, yesterday evoked Lady Macbeth to warn against a vote for independence, saying that “once it’s done, it’s done.”

With a record 97 percent of the electorate registered to vote and turnout upward of 85 percent forecast, the result may not be known until until 6 a.m. or later tomorrow.

Shames Yusuf, a 48-year-old clerical assistant in a headscarf, said she was unpersuaded by independence campaigners.

“Think of a hand, with five fingers,” she said. “Separately they’re weak, but together they can make a fist that’s strong. We’re stronger as part of a bigger country.”

Final Polls

A final flurry of opinion polls on the eve of the vote showed the Better Together campaign retaining a slim lead. In the largest survey yet, YouGov Plc polled 3,237 people on Sept. 15-17 and found “no” support at 52 percent to 48 percent for “yes” when excluding undecided respondents. A poll by Survation for the Daily Record newspaper put the “no” lead at six percentage points, while a third poll, by Ipsos-Mori for STV, put the “no” campaign ahead by 51 percent to 49 percent.

It was a second Ipsos-Mori survey for London’s Evening Standard newspaper, published today while polling in Scotland was under way, that gave the “no” camp a six-point lead, again excluding undecided voters. The polling company surveyed 911 voters Sept. 16-17.

“These results confirm the picture from other polls before polling day -- the referendum looks extremely close, and although ‘‘no’’ seems to have a small lead much will depend on turnout on the day,” Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos-Mori, said in an e-mailed statement.

The pound appreciated 0.4 percent to 78.74 pence per euro at 2:40 p.m. London time after touching to 78.54 pence, the strongest level since August 2012.

Undecided Voters

The polls show enough people are undecided to tip the result. Depending on the survey, there are between 170,000 and 990,000 voters yet to make up their mind based on the percentage of respondents and the number of registered voters.

The referendum has been particularly hard for pollsters to gauge because there is no real historical precedent to base findings upon, said Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at YouGov. He cited “silent noes,” or people who are keeping it quiet that they’re preparing to vote against independence, as one group stoking uncertainty.

“How many of those we have, we simply don’t know,” Twyman said in an interview. “If I had to bet my house on it, I would say ‘no’ is going to win, but you never know.”

The results from the 32 council regions will start emerging in the small hours of tomorrow morning. There are a number of bellwethers for how the result may go.

Dundee, Ayrshire

Bookmakers Ladbrokes Plc has the city of Dundee, whose council is run by Salmond’s Scottish National Party, with the shortest odds, or most likely, for the largest “yes” vote. The longest odds are for places like the Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire, where the Conservatives have the most council seats.

Early declarations where each side will look for signs the result will go their way include East Lothian, home to the Open golf championships venue Muirfield, and North Lanarkshire, a traditional Labour heartland. The Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns have both said they need to persuade Labour voters to back them if they are to win.

There are some wild cards: The electorate includes about 110,000 voters age 16-18 after the threshold was lowered for the referendum. The vote is also open to residents of Scotland rather than just U.K. citizens, meaning people from the European Union and Commonwealth are eligible to cast a ballot.

‘No Sympathy’

It won’t just be politicians in London and Edinburgh looking on. Groups with their own aspirations for independence across Europe are drawing on Scotland to push for similar votes, particularly in Catalonia.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded to a question from a Basque lawmaker in parliament yesterday by saying he had “no sympathy at all for these processes. They are bad for the state in question and for the whole of the European Union.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew added his voice last night to the many outside figures who have expressed their preference for the U.K. to remain whole, saying that the Obama administration “has made clear a strong, united United Kingdom is important.” The White House later said via Twitter that Obama sees the U.K. as an “extraordinary partner for America and a force for good in an unstable world.”

Andy Murray

Tennis player Andy Murray, a Scot, backed the “yes” campaign overnight. “Huge day for Scotland today,” Murray said in a Twitter posting. “No campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it.”

A conflation of events have put the vote on a knife’s edge, saying more about divergence within the U.K. than the desire of Scots for freedom or even to get rid of nuclear weapons and spend the money on the health service.

First, there’s the widening gap between politics in Scotland, where Salmond’s SNP has run the government since 2007, and England, where the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party is gaining ground. Secondly, there’s the weakening of the Labour Party, which lost to Cameron in 2010 only to be trounced by the SNP in Scotland a year later.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Matt Qvortrup, senior researcher at Cranfield University and author of “Referendums and Ethnic Conflict.” “In one way, this happens all the time: countries become independent. Yet it also would be momentous, the disuniting of a union that’s lasted so long.”

It’s been almost two years since Cameron and Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement that set out the terms of the referendum. It was heralded by both sides as a gentlemen’s accord, with both promising to uphold the result.

Standby Police

The campaigns became increasingly heated and culminated this week in accusations of scaremongering and lies over inflated oil-revenue figures, price increases for Scottish consumers, the domicile of banks and who could best safeguard the health service. Police said they were on standby for any tension today, while the Church of Scotland appealed for unity as people cast their votes.

Salmond, in a letter to voters published yesterday, said people should dismiss the “increasingly desperate” scare stories over independence.

If the U.K. politicians opposed to Scottish independence are looking for a favorable omen before today’s referendum, Patrick Thompson’s houseboat moored on the Union Canal in Edinburgh might suffice.

‘Narrow Escape’

Posted in two of the barge’s windows for the benefit of passers-by are blue and green “yes” signs in support of the nationalists. The vessel’s name, “Narrow Escape,” captures what the outcome would be for Cameron if it’s a “no” vote.

Thompson, 59, who has lived on the boat for the past three years and put up his posters at the start of the campaign, says he’s voting to break Scotland from the U.K. so “it’s easier to get rid of politicians we don’t want.”

“I still believe that Scotland is a beautiful country obviously, but there’s a lot of talent in Scotland, it’s not just about oil,” he said in an interview this week.

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