Showdown in Scotland

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead.

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, theSun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

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What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” — but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked upon the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that most Scots favor enhanced devolution (that is, more powers for the Scottish Parliament) over full independence, but the three main parties — Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats — that comprise Better Together have failed to present a common program for greater devolved powers after a No vote. Instead, the parties’ marriage of convenience has become increasingly strained as the referendum campaign has dragged on: Traditionally the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour has been forced to share platforms with their gravest political foes, the Conservatives. David Cameron’s Tories are pariahs in Scotland, holding just one of 59 seats representing Scotland in the UK’s parliament and blamed for the savage de-industrialization of the Margaret Thatcher years that still scars the country today. The Liberal Democrats, once a significant presence north of Hadrian’s Wall, were routed in the 2011 elections to the devolved Scottish parliament — punishment for their decision to go into a coalition with Conservatives in London.

Meanwhile, “Yes Scotland,” the official independence campaign, has not exactly set the pulses racing. Its messaging has been vague and reports of internal splits have been rife. But pro-independence forces have something their unionist opponents largely lack: a dedicated, highly motivated grassroots political movement the likes of which Scotland (and possibly even Britain) has not seen in generations. In places like Easterhouse, a sprawling housing estate (or project) on the outskirts of Glasgow, the independence message is being driven not by the SNP, but by new groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, a left-wing organization formed in 2012 that has proved effective at mobilizing disenfranchised voters.

Canvas returns now suggest that most Scots in working-class communities intend to vote Yes.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking. (Glasgow, for example, hassome of the worst mortality rates in the whole of Europe. In the Calton district, infamously, male life expectancy is just 59 years.) That said, the nationalist clarion call to abandon a “broken Britain” does not just play in housing estates: Polls suggest that younger voters are coming over to Yes in ever-increasing numbers. Thousands of grassroots activists have been mobilized, many for the first time.How is the movement gathering activists and achieving these gains? The SNP has long aped the 2008 Obama campaign, asking whether Scotland wants hope or fear. In reality, the nationalists have used a liberal amount of both, seasoning the optimistic vision of an affluent, nuclear-free, Nordic-lite independent Scotland with a salutary dose of doom-laden rhetoric about never-ending Tory rule and the erosion of the devolved parliament’s powers. But the key difference between this approach and that of Better Together is that the nationalists waited until the last month of the campaign to go negative — a tactic that seems to be working, judging by opinion polls.

Additionally, while unionists have the weight of the status quo behind them — and the advantage of incumbency — the nationalists have attempted to make this a referendum about not just Scottish independence, but also the Westminster political system. In calling for “Independence in Europe,” the Yes campaign is expressing a populist opprobrium of establishment politics that resonates with many voters.

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In late August, I spent an afternoon in Gretna, in southern Scotland. For centuries, this border town was a haven for eloping English couples taking advantage of Scottish law to legally wed at 14 (for boys) and 12 (for girls) without parental consent. Nowadays, a huge outlet store is the main attraction.

In a field just behind the shopping center stands a small pile of rocks. Some are colored in red, white, and blue — the shades of the union flag — and carry slogans like “Stay Together” and “Never Apart.” Passersby are invited to stop a while and add a stone in honor.

This is the “Auld Acquaintance Cairn,” the brainchild of Rory Stewart, erstwhile deputy governor in Iraq and now a Conservative member of parliament on the English side of the border. It is meant to symbolize the connections between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Stewart had said he hoped it would reach nine feet tall. But it was barely a third of that with less than three weeks to polling day. In the half an hour I spent at the cairn, nobody else stopped by.

The message is clear: The No side might still be the favorite to stumble across the finish line first in the coming referendum, but it has singularly failed to make an emotional case for the United Kingdom. A Better Together activist told me recently, “It is like a business transaction. I look at the sums; they don’t add up, so you don’t do it.” This might be a good reason to reject independence, but such instrumentality hardly bodes well for the union’s future health — and such sentiments leave plenty of room for uncertainty about what will happen on Sept. 18.

Nationalists have won the argument that Scotland could be a separate state. The question now is whether they can persuade their fellow Scots that it should be. If they can, what seemed unimaginable just a few months ago could become a reality.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.