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Scotland referendum: Britain on the brink

A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014.
A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014. AP Photo/PA, Danny Lawson

LONDON – With only three days to go until Scotland’s historic referendum on independence, people across the United Kingdom are holding their collective breath. The latest polls show the vote is still too close to call. Both sides are in a virtual tie. While Brits are not prone to making emotional displays of patriotism, they are certainly being asked to do so this week.

British comedian Eddie Izzard led a rally in Trafalgar Square in hopes of mustering a last ditch display of national unity. David Beckham and other celebrities have made passionate pleas for Scotland to stay. Even Irish rocker Bob Geldolf – who knows a cause when he sees one – delivered a speech. Sympathizing with disillusioned Scots he said, “we’re all f***ing fed up of Westminster (the British parliament)” but that the United Kingdom was worth saving. It wasn’t exactly Live Aid but it may sway a few of the half-a-million Scottish voters who are still undecided.

I covered the 1995 referendum in Quebec and there is a similar numb feeling in the air in UK this week. Everything is on hold. There is strange dizzying realization that your country could suddenly break apart. It’s kind of like waiting for an earthquake. A ‘Yes’ victory would be a devastating psychological blow to Britain – yet another fall in what has been a steady century of decline.

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Youth Vote

As was the case in the Quebec referendum, young voters in Scotland tend to support independence. But the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party has achieved something the Parti Quebecois only dreamed of: giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. The voting age in Scotland has been lowered and this could tip the balance in the ‘Yes’ side’s favour. The referendum will be the first time young Scots will be able to exercise their right to vote – and what a electoral debut!

Seventeen-year-old Neil Heatlie has just started studying engineering at Glasgow University. He’s young, confident and says he’ll be voting ‘Yes’. “We could become a more prosperous country with independence,” he says.

But Neil also reflects the general sense of fairness that Scots display over their English neighbours. “I think we could create a more equal society because the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the world.” Anyone who pays the ridiculously expensive rents and transport costs in London would agree.

Money & Ethnics

Despite Scotland’s oil wealth most business leaders have come out against separation and have warned of economic catastrophe. It could even lead to another Great Depression for Britain. Scotland can forget about using the Pound and the British passport. Those will be familiar arguments to Canadians and Quebec separatist leader Jacques Parizeau who blamed the ‘Yes’ side loss in 1995 on ‘money and ethnics.’ But while big money in the UK is definitely on the side of the union, the ethnic vote in Scotland is more complex. Many Polish and eastern Europeans, for example, have moved to Scotland in the last decade. But there has been a recent rise of the far right nationalist parties in Britain and the ruling Conservatives are promising a referendum in 2017 on taking the UK out of the EU. So in an odd twist of logic, many of Scotland’s European ethnic groups will be voting ‘Yes’ to keep the country in the European Union.

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More Powers

British Prime Minister David Cameron was back in Scotland Monday making a last pitch for the union. He warned Scots that separation will be a “painful divorce” with no shared currency and a border that may not be crossed easily.

Instead Cameron offered Scotland more political powers. “The status quo is gone. A vote for ‘No’ means real change.”

If Scotland does indeed vote ‘No’ and accepts the offer, how long before Wales and Northern Ireland ask for the same devolved powers?

No matter the result on Thursday, the United Kingdom as we know will change forever.

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