EDINBURGH - Next week, people in Scotland will decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom – along with England, Wales and Northern Ireland – or whether to break away and become independent.
Recent polls show a lead for the ‘No’ campaign has melted away and the two sides are now neck-and-neck.
On Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the icons of Scottish identity – bagpipers, tartan and whisky shops – are pulling in tourists and doing a brisk trade during a week when the city is hosting political leaders from London who have united in a campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom.
In a speech Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron made an impassioned plea.
“Of course, it is an issue that will be decided solely by the people of Scotland," he said. "But I want to make sure that they hear how much the rest of the United Kingdom also cares and wants to say to them very clearly, 'It's your decision, but we want you to stay.'”
Cameron agreed to a referendum two years ago. Scotland already has a separate parliament in Edinburgh but its powers to raise taxes are limited, and London still decides economic and foreign policy.
The ‘Yes’ to independence campaign, led by the incumbent Scottish National Party, appears to have the late momentum.
“There has always been a sizeable minority in Scotland who just instinctively want Scotland to be an independent country," said David Torrance, a political writer and biographer of Alex Salmond, the current First Minister of Scotland. "That might be romantic to an extent but nevertheless it’s a sincerely held view. What you see now is an additional layer of people who have been convinced over the past two years that independence will make them better off.’
The question of whether Scotland would be economically better off breaking away is at the heart of the debate.
The east coast harbor of Aberdeen is a service hub for oil platforms out in the North Sea. An estimated 90 percent of Britain’s reserves lie beneath what would be Scottish national waters. The Scottish government says there are 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil left; the United Kingdom government says that figure is closer to 15 billion.
Alex Kemp, professor of petroleum economics at the University of Aberdeen, says it depends on technological advances.
“If the industry enhances it production efficiency, then the fall in production could be reversed for five or six years," Kemp said. "And it could come up a bit. The UK government is not really convinced of that. Then we have oil prices. Well, the UK government is saying oil prices are going to fall over the next few years. The Scottish government has said ‘No, they’re not going to fall, they may even go up.'”
Experts agree it’s impossible to predict exact tax revenues from oil.
Economic uncertainty makes independence too risky, argues Andrew McKenzie Smith, a prominent ‘No’ campaigner from near Dundee.
“I just feel we’re going into something, absolutely into an abyss of the unknown," Smith said. "The ‘Yes’ campaign have got lots of soundbites, there’s lots of exciting things that they propose, but in the harsh reality, none of it is accounted for.”
Kenny Anderson, a ‘Yes’ campaigner and member of the group Business for Scotland, argues independence would free Scotland from London’s economic shackles.
“I’m not sure that always the UK has our unique interests at the top of their agenda," Anderson said. "Not for any sinister reason, it’s just that there are other pressures. Whereas if we’re independent, we can put our unique interests – whisky, oil, gas, fishing, engineering, education – right at the top of our agenda.”
The narrowing gap in the polls has sent shockwaves across Britain. The union that has stood for 300 years is now in doubt and a new nation-state could soon be born.