The British government has been shocked into action by a surprise poll over the weekend that revealed a slim majority of Scots planning to vote for independence.
“Ten days to save the Union with Scotland,” headlines the Telegraph. “UK scrambles to promise more powers if Scots reject independence,” writes Reuters. The pound fell to a ten-month low against the dollar on the news.
Now will average Brit start to care too? Until now, they haven’t seemed to pay much attention to the historic referendum taking place Sept. 18.
In Scotland, the “Yes” and “No” campaigns are locked in a fierce battle for the country's future. Just an hour south of the border with England, it’s a political affair seen as little more than amusingly curious or slightly annoying.
On a rainy day in August, Paul and Judy Dunford invited myself and a photographer into their white-washed home, splashed with potted flowers in every window, in the town of Orton. It’s a bucolic area near the heart of the Lake District, where transportation, health services, and jobs are the main concerns.
Both retired, he as a teacher and she as a nurse, the Dunfords are engaged in the world. They lived in Zambia shortly after it gained independence from the British, and have strong feelings about Britain’s colonial past and its role in the world today. They both fervently feel the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.
But on the question of Scottish independence, they offer a shrug. “I can’t see it affecting us too much,” says Mr. Dunford. “It is Scotland that would lose out.”
Ms. Dunford says she isn’t overly concerned either, but is irritated by Scotland's wish to “pick and choose” a path to independence – control over its own budget, for example, but sticking with the pound.
A jolt to referendum apathy
The couple is certainly not alone. It’s the kind of disengagement heard from the offices of think tanks in London to the streets of Portsmouth in the south to Blyth in the northeast.
This apathy has been grounded in the polling: for a long time it looked like a given that Scotland would vote to remain part of the union. Not even the government cared much. As the Guardian wrote today: "England’s love-bombing of Scotland is a pathetic afterthought. A month ago, with a no vote taken for granted, Westminster did not care much. Now the panic has set in.”
Indeed, it set in this weekend. For the first time, a YouGov survey for the Sunday Times showed that the “Yes” camp was polling at 51 percent, compared to 49 percent who say they plan to vote “No” to stay with the union. The results excluded those who didn't plan to vote or were undecided.
A "Yes" vote would have major implications for Britain, from the present country’s landmass to its population size to its standing in the world, and even how easily (or not) the Dunfords will be able to travel back and forth across the border.
Even if Scots vote "No", there will be political repercussions that affect the entire UK, starting with a promise of new powers to be devolved to Scotland. And the more the gap narrows, the stronger the argument is for a shift in the balance of power away from Westminster, the main reason Scots are going to the polls in the first place.
“It’s clear that Scotland wants more control over the decisions that affect Scotland,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said Sunday, after the poll was released. “The timetable for delivering that will be put into effect the moment there is a ‘No’ vote in the referendum. Then Scotland will have the best of both worlds. They will both avoid the risks of separation but have more control over their own destiny, which is where I think many Scots want to be.”
Some might even wonder if the news that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant with her second child was timed just right – to create a sense of national unity that reminds Scots of what is so good about their 307-year-old union.
The British are probably going to be talking about that news more than the political destiny of Scotland. But the latter is surely going to be seen as more than a political sideshow as the vote nears.