LONDON // Scotland marks a year to go until its independence referendum on Wednesday but separatists face an uphill struggle to convince voters to back a momentous split from the United Kingdom.
Scotland’s charismatic leader Alex Salmond has brought his Scottish National Party closer than ever to its dream of independence, but opinion polls suggest only a third of Scots currently intend to vote in favour of breaking away.
A “yes” vote would mean splitting away from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, severing a 300-year-old union – not a decision the 5.3 million Scots are taking lightly.
“We’re one year to the biggest decision we’ll ever take as a country,” Michael Moore, secretary of state for Scotland in the British cabinet, said. “This is an argument about the head and the heart.”
Scotland currently has a devolved government, giving first minister Mr Salmond’s administration in Edinburgh control over a range of policies including health and education. But other big policy areas, including defence, foreign policy and welfare, are still controlled by London.
The British prime minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government is pushing hard for a “no” vote.
“We want to continue to make the case for Scotland as part of a successful United Kingdom – something that gives us greater economic opportunity and security and a much stronger place in the world,” said Mr Moore.
The “no” camp claims independence would be fraught with risks and problems.
Oil is one of them – up to 24 billion barrels still lie off Britain in the North Sea, mostly in Scottish territory. London and Edinburgh have yet to discuss how they would divide the revenues, while experts say an independent Scotland could be over-dependent on the volatile energy market.
Rejoining the European Union and Nato could prove a headache, critics claim. And then there is the small matter of Britain’s nuclear deterrent carried by submarines based in western Scotland, which the anti-nuclear Mr Salmond wants to evict if he is victorious.
All in all, according to Professor Michael Keating, chair in Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen, “there’s a great reluctance amongst voters to go all the way to independence, because it’s seen as very risky”.
But Mr Salmond insists Scotland would face a “much more certain future” if it goes it alone.
“I think there’s very substantial risks in staying as we are,” he said in an interview last month.
He paints a vision of an independent Scotland that is not only rich because of its North Sea oil reserves, but more egalitarian and pro-European than Britain.
He also stresses the things that would stay the same, from keeping Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state to continuing to use the pound – though London has said it could potentially object to this.
Mr Salmond is considered a canny political operator who has pulled off impressive feats for the SNP before, bringing them to power as a minority government in 2007, then winning a sweeping majority in 2011.
But while he claims he can do so again, most experts believe his chances are slim.
“Opinion polls have been showing about 30 per cent for independence for the last 20 years and we’ve seen very little change, even though the campaign’s been engaged for the last six months,” said Prof Keating.
“So Alex Salmond would have difficulty getting that up to 50 per cent.”
Analysts say the likeliest outcome is a “no” vote followed by an SNP bid to devolve more powers from London – an option, believed to have the backing of a majority of Scots, that is being dubbed “devo max”.
Control over Scotland’s own taxes and welfare policy would be top of the SNP’s wish list, Prof Keating said.
Ironically, he added, devolution may have ultimately killed off the party’s bigger dream of independence as many Scots are satisfied with the status quo.
They enjoy several benefits unavailable south of the border, including free university tuition and medical prescriptions, while the settlement goes some way towards soothing a historic sense of oppression by the English.
Could a “no” vote, then, spell the death of the SNP? Experts think not, pointing to the example of Canada’s Quebec province – where the separatists continue to govern, despite having lost two independence referendums.
“They’ve proved that you can survive a referendum defeat if you are a nationalist party,” said Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford University and co-author of Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards.
“I’m confident the SNP will survive.”
* Agence France-Presse