Passions run high with only 100 hours until polling starts

Published by The Mail on Sunday (14th September, 2014)

As the autumn sun shone down and the ear-splitting sounds of pipes and drums from thousands of Orange Order marchers filled Edinburgh, the Californian tourists could not have been happier.

‘This is so fabulous,’ said Mary, a film location scout, smiling as her husband snapped away with his camera at loyalists parading along the Royal Mile in their bowler hats and banners. ‘We are watching history in the making on our holiday.’

Perhaps. There are just 100 hours to go until voting starts in the independence referendum that will define Britain’s future, yet it remains impossible to determine if we are witnessing a seismic moment in our island’s story.

Yesterday the two rival camps fanned out in force across Scotland, that famous blue-and-white Saltire fluttering from hundreds of stalls as thousands of campaigners argued over independence.

But the result – the future of a 307-year-old union – remains poised on a knife-edge. The latest poll released yesterday by Better Together gave the No camp an eight-point lead, showing a recent barrage of warnings from business leaders and economists may have tilted the balance.

But their rivals Yes Scotland insisted results from 25,000 canvas daily returns gave them a majority. And, confusingly, another poll showed the Yes campaign eight points in the lead instead of behind.

Last night this astonishing battle for Britain intensified as the No campaign warned that with five days left, nationalists had not answered five key questions on jobs, pensions, public services, prices and the pound.

Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor leading the campaign to preserve the United Kingdom, said the referendum was the biggest decision most Scots would ever make – yet critical issues were not resolved. ‘We still don’t know with five days to go what currency we would have,’ he said. ‘How confident can we be that our public services will be funded?’

His campaign, which saw a 22-point lead wiped out, has been accused of lacking energy to counter the romantic appeal of independence. But Darling insisted he was confident of victory with the support of ‘the silent majority’ – and even displayed a rare burst of passion.

‘If we vote to leave by just one vote then that is it. If we leave, there is absolutely no going back. It is not just for a generation but for our children’s children.’

The stumbling No campaign has been hampered by personal feuds among key Labour figures. The Tories are so reviled in Scotland they have taken a back seat, even though there is so much at stake the vote potentially threatens the Prime Minister’s future.

But yesterday Gordon Brown, re-invigorated by this referendum after his dismal days in Downing Street, delivered another fiesty speech in his Kirkcaldy constituency.

‘None of us here should allow it to be said that anybody who votes No is less patriotic and less proud of our country. We are patriotic Scots with a patriotic vision for the future.’

There is anger among many supporters of the union at the way SNP leader Alex Salmond has portrayed the independence vote as a struggle between Scotland and Westminster.

‘I am Scottish and proud of it, so who is he to tell me that I am unpatriotic by voting to keep the greatest political union the world has ever seen,’ one Edinburgh lawyer said to me. ‘I’m sick of this nationalism which is so divisive.’

This came from a man I have known for three decades whom I have never seen so impassioned on a political issue – or so infuriated by a leader. It indicated how tensions are rising as this landmark vote comes close.

Salmond was on the back foot yesterday over threats of revenge against companies opposing separation, as Marks and Spencer and several phone companies became the latest to warn prices would rise following independence.

The First Minister slapped down Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of his party who warned such firms faced ‘a day of reckoning’. Salmond said the day after a Yes vote would be one of celebration, not reckoning, with opposing sides uniting in ‘Team Scotland’.

‘We must rise above these underhand Tory tactics and be confident of the new spirit in Scotland,’ he said. ‘The people are in no mood to be bullied by big Westminster government putting pressure on big business to intimidate the people of Scotland.’

Yet Sillars kept up his attacks yesterday, accusing Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive who has put out an anti-independence statement, of being ‘an agent of Downing Street.’

However a study by Deutsche Bank claimed a vote for separation would go down as one of the great political and economic mistakes of recent history, warning of negative consequences ‘far beyond what people had imagined.’

Rather incredibly, the future of the UK hinges this week upon a vote in which only one in 14 of the country’s citizens will participate. It could impact on everything from the economy to our place on the United Nations Security Council.

When the referendum was announced in 2011, polls put backing for independence at under 35 per cent. Last week a YouGov poll put Yes in front, which woke up those south of the border.

The Orange Order march – disowned by Yes campaigners although the organisation’s membership in Scotland is bigger than any political party – underlined this sudden focus on the debate.

Ron Bather, grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of England, told a rally: ‘To you Scottish sisters and brethren, this coming week is your chance to defeat once and for all the separatists, the people that want to change your way of life.’

Another speaker put it in more familiar loyalist terms. ‘No to independence and no surrender to separatism.’

Joining the 15,000 marchers were loyalists from Liverpool in Union Jack suits, children from Glasgow dressed as ‘King Billy’ and even a stag party of Protestants from Donegal. ‘We’re supporting Scotland to stay part of the UK,’ said Jason Mahon, 27, the bridegroom.

As the parade passed a restaurant draped with Yes posters, its owner said their involvement would push moderates into the separatist camp. ‘They don’t seem to realise this campaign is for people like them, to build a new community in Scotland,’ he added, shaking his head sadly.

Amid the swirl of claim and counter-claim, it is clear many Scots remain confused despite the intensity of debate. Darling claimed yesterday 500,000 voters – one in eight of those eligible to vote – are still to finalise their decision.

Given the lack of comparative polling data, the reduction of voting age to 16 and the anticipated turnout of 80 per cent, it remains a highly unpredictable contest. The appeal of the separatist cause was highlighted yesterday by a prominent Tory donor declaring support for independence.

‘I look forward to awaken to the dawning of a new Scotland, confident to face the next 100 years and beyond as an independent nation,’ said John McGlynn, founder of the Airlink Group of car parks.

Already this ballot has become the biggest political betting event in history, with stakes reaching the same level as the last British General Election and US presidential contest combined. One punter gambled £800,000 on a No vote.

Yes Scotland claimed it will have 35,000 volunteers at 500 street stalls over the weekend in a last push to persuade people, with more than 2.6m leaflets being delivered.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister, said they would focus on job-creation and the health service in the final days of campaigning; few dare point out how the Scottish NHS costs more and achieves worse outcomes than south of the border.

Sturgeon said: ‘The Yes campaign has been carried along by a flourishing of self-confidence among people in Scotland. This means we can say with certainty to people still making up their mind: ‘Let’s do this.’

The world is watching with great interest, especially since Catalonia’s government holds a similar referendum on independence from Spain in two months time. Prominent Putin supporters and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un have backed independence, while President Obama and Chinese leader Li Keqiang supports the status quo.

Even a No vote looks set to alter the political landscape after the panicked pledge by all three main party leaders to offer ‘devo max’ to Scotland. This prompted Ukip’s Nigel Farage to demand a ‘new constitutional settlement’ for voting at Westminster on English matters.

But yesterday saw signs of a backlash against federalisation in Britain with Tory MP Christopher Chope warning that there was no guarantee the promised powers would get through parliament.

One more thing for those 4m voters to ponder as they enter polling booths from the Highlands and Islands to Edinburgh, Glasgow and the borders.

Their decision on Thursday could determine all our futures.

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