Edinburgh, Reuters—On the eve of Scotland’s historic referendum, polls showed support for staying in the United Kingdom just ahead of backing for independence, but tens of thousands of citizens were still agonizing over which way to vote on Thursday.
Leaders and supporters of both sides took to the streets on Wednesday for a final day of campaigning in a country gripped by excitement and hope balanced by a strong measure of dread and concern.
Voters will be asked to answer “Yes” or “No” to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
A ‘Yes’ vote would spell the end of the 307-year-old union with England and the break-up of the United Kingdom—as well as economic uncertainty.
Three surveys—from pollsters ICM, Opinium and Survation—showed support for independence at 48 percent compared with 52 percent backing for the union. They found 8–14 percent of Scotland’s 4.3 million voters were still undecided before polls open at 6 am on Thursday.
British political leaders have promised greater autonomy for Scotland if people decide to stay in the union. But independence supporters say it is time for Scotland to choose its own leaders and make its own decisions free of rule from London.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who has led the independence campaign, urged Scots: “Wake up on Friday morning to the first day of a better country.”
In an open letter to voters, Salmond said Scotland’s future was in their hands. Invoking 18th century economist Adam Smith and Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns, he said: “Don’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers. Don’t let them tell us we can’t. Let’s do this.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron told the Times newspaper he always thought the contest would be tightly fought.
“Whatever the result, we are a democracy. You have to respect the expression of people through the ballot box,” he said in an interview.
Cameron has visited Scotland twice in the past week to appeal for it to stay in the United Kingdom’s “family of nations.” But he is unpopular north of the border, often dismissed as the epitome of a disdainful upper-class Englishman.
Asked if he woke up in the night sweating over the possibility of defeat, he replied: “Of course.”
All three polls showed nationalists had gained ground but the fact that supporters of the union were ahead prompted investors to buy the pound, extending sterling’s gain against the dollar.
“It is very tight,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told the Scotsman newspaper. “At the moment it looks as if the ‘Yes’ campaign is going to fall agonizingly short from their perspective.”
Hundreds of independence supporters rallied in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, on Wednesday, chanting, “Yes we can and we will,” and listening to speeches by activists on the steps in front of the Royal Concert Hall.
“We’re on the verge of victory because we’ve reconnected so many people with the political process,” Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Green Party leader, told the crowd. “Nothing’s going to be the same again, whichever way it goes.”
One sign read: “Vote as if you live in the early days of a better world.”
With more than 486,000 voters, Glasgow is a crucial battleground and the way its traditional Labour Party supporters go will be decisive.
Also in Glasgow, former British prime minister Gordon Brown told a rally of union supporters that the independence advocates “are leading us into a trap.”
People in the crowd waved posters with giant hearts and the slogan, “Love Scotland, Vote No.”
“Have confidence, stand up and be counted tomorrow,” said Brown, a Scot who has campaigned tirelessly for the “Better Together” side. “Say to your friends, for reasons of solidarity, sharing, pride in Scotland, the only answer is vote ‘No.'”
The momentum gained by the ‘Yes’ campaign in recent weeks panicked the British establishment. Banks, businesses and investors weighed in to predict doom and gloom if Scotland broke away, including job losses, rising prices and a capital exodus.
The question of which currency an independent Scotland would use has so far gone unanswered. British political leaders have dismissed Salmond’s contention that Edinburgh and London could agree on a currency union under which Scotland keeps sterling.
Pro-union campaigners highlighted official figures on Wednesday which showed employment in Scotland had risen 45,000 in the three months to July, as an example of the United Kingdom being better off together.
“Not voting, or voting ‘Yes’ will send our country down the high risk road to irreversible separation and economic disaster,” said Danny Alexander, a Scot and senior minister in Britain’s finance ministry.
The Scottish edition of the Sun newspaper declined on Wednesday to take sides. As Scotland’s best-selling daily, its stand had been eagerly awaited but it said in an editorial simply that it believed in the people of Scotland to make the right decision.
In an open letter, 14 former chiefs of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force warned that a vote for independence would undermine defense in both Scotland and the United Kingdom.
“The division of the UK may or may not be politically or economically sensible, but in military terms we are clear: it will weaken us all,” they wrote.
If Scots vote for independence, Britain and Scotland will face lengthy negotiations over everything from sharing North Sea oil tax revenue and a future currency to European Union membership and Britain’s main nuclear submarine base which Salmond’s Scottish National Party wants out of the country.
The prospect of breaking up the United Kingdom, the world’s sixth-largest economy and a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has prompted citizens and allies alike to ponder what would be left.
The White House said it would prefer the United Kingdom to remain “strong, robust and united.”
In the face of the biggest internal threat to the United Kingdom since much of Ireland broke away nearly a century ago, the leaders of Britain’s three main political parties have promised to devolve more powers to Scotland if it stays.
In a deal brokered by Brown, they said they would retain the funding equation that sustains a higher level of public spending north of the border.
British leaders accept that even if Scotland votes to keep the union, the United Kingdom’s structure will have to change as the rush to grant so many powers to Scotland will provoke calls for a less centralized state from voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.