International

Scottish referendum too close to call as London offers more powers

EDINBURGH/LONDON:  A surge in Scottish support for breaking away from the United Kingdom has made an independence vote in nine days too close to call, a poll showed on Tuesday, as London scrambled to shore up the 307-year union by pledging more autonomy to Scotland.

The number of people in the TNS poll saying they would vote “No” to independence fell to 39 percent from 45 percent a month ago while “Yes” support leapt to 38 percent from 32 percent.

“This poll reveals a remarkable shift in voting intentions,” said Tom Costley, head of TNS Scotland.

“It is too close to call and both sides will now be energised to make the most of the last few days of the campaign and try and persuade the undecided voters of the merits of their respective campaigns.”

The fate of the United Kingdom is in the balance after a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times put the pro-independence camp slightly ahead for the first time this year and led to a fall in the pound and British share prices.

Sterling held near a 10-month low on Tuesday.The late surge by the “Yes” campaign led by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party, the ruling party in Edinburgh, makes a break-up – long seen as a pipedream – a distinct possibility.

In an attempt to turn the tide, Britain’s most prominent politicians rushed to offer Scots more powers, steps nationalists said betrayed panic within the British elite.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scottish Labour politician vilified by the ruling Conservatives for presiding over the 2008 economic crisis, proposed a timetable for the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s job could be at risk if Scots voted for independence in the Sept. 18 referendum. Odds on Cameron losing his job were cut to 8/1 from 16/1 by Ladbrokes.

Following an independence vote, Britain and Scotland would face 18 months of negotiations over how to carve up everything from North Sea oil and the pound to European Union membership and Britain’s main nuclear submarine base.

Cameron has been largely absent from the debate after conceding that his privileged English background and centre-right politics mean he is not the best person to win over Scots, usually more left-wing than the English.

That has left the opposition Labour party with much of the burden of trying to convince Scots to stick with the union.

Polls show the “No” camp’s lead evaporated in late August as many traditionally unionist Labour voters switched towards backing independence.

DISUNITED KINGDOM?

Speaking for the unionist campaign in a miners’ welfare club in central Midlothian on Monday evening, Brown said discussions over further powers would begin the day after a “No” vote, with legislation put before the British parliament by January 2015.

It would give the Scottish Parliament more power over welfare, finance, social and economic policy, he said.

“This moves us as close to federalism as we can,” said Brown, one of the only British politicians that nationalist leader Salmond is said to fear.

“Scotland is already a nation,” Brown said. “We are proud of our history and culture. Do we want to sever all constitutional links with our friends, our neighbours, our relatives in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The intervention by Brown, who remains popular in Scotland, was welcomed by Britain’s three main political parties and a source in Cameron’s office.

Speaking to reporters in Edinburgh, Salmond branded Brown’s offer “a-back-of-the-envelope non-plan” and said the unionist campaign was falling apart ahead of next week’s referendum.

“There’s actually nothing new in this package whatsoever. This is a retreading, a repackaging, a re-timetabling of what they said in the spring,” he told reporters in Edinburgh.

“This is a day the ‘No’ campaign finally fell apart.”

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband called on people across the United Kingdom to fly the white-on-blue Scottish Saltire flag as a gesture of unity with the Scots.

“We want cities, towns and villages across the UK to fly the Saltire and send a message to Scotland: stay with us,” Miliband said in a statement.

‘TOO CLOSE TOO CALL’

The TNS poll of 990 people, carried out between Aug. 27 and Sept. 4, found a surge in the number who said they were certain to vote to 84 percent. Among those certain to vote, “No” and “Yes” were tied on 41 percent compared with 46 percent and 38 percent respectively the previous month.

Women – previously seen as cautious about independence – showed a strong move towards a “Yes” vote. There was also an increased likelihood to vote “Yes” amongst those aged under 55.

The proportion of undecided voters rose from 16 percent to 18 percent, implying that implied about 600,000 people intend to vote but have not decided which way to go.

The independence question has provoked months of impassioned debate in Scotland from boardrooms to street campaigns.

Proponents of independence say it is time for Scotland to run its own affairs and choose its own leaders rather than be ruled from London. An independent Scotland can use its North Sea oil revenue to create a prosperous and fairer society instead of the British government’s welfare cuts, they say.

Advocates of staying in the union say the country is stronger as part of a bigger entity and that going it alone would put it in a precarious economic position. – Reuters

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