Of course Scotland won’t leave the United Kingdom.  That was the conventional wisdom when the referendum on Scottish independence was announced two years ago.  But today no one is quite certain what the outcome will be.  The referendum is scheduled for September 18, and polls indicate that a majority of Scots favor staying in the United Kingdom, but there is also a large number of undecided voters.  The campaign for independence has been picking up momentum since the start of the year.  About the only thing both sides agree on is that the result could still go either way.

The case for staying in the United Kingdom seems clear cut.  Scotland is already mostly self-governing, but she enjoys the benefits of being part of a major world power.  If they leave, Scots face an uncertain future as one of Europe’s many small countries.  In the face of such compelling arguments, why is the outcome of the referendum still uncertain?

The campaign for independence—known as “Yes Scotland”—owes its growing popularity both to its own excellent strategy and to stumbling by its opponents.  The campaign to stay in the United Kingdom goes by the sunny, optimistic name of “Better Together.”  However, its tactics seem mostly to consist of reminding Scots of the financial losses they will suffer if they leave and the dangers of an uncertain future.  Yes Scotland supporters respond to these warnings with cries of “scaremongering.”

Better Together makes its appeal to Scottish voters’ minds.  Yes Scotland appeals to their hearts.  Their campaign organizes gatherings that consist mostly of readings of traditional Scottish poetry and singing of folk songs.  This is followed by a more general discussion of Scots’ hopes and dreams for their independent country.  Yes Scotland is a true grass-roots campaign, training volunteers on how to talk to their friends and family about the referendum.  Some commentators compare their tactics to the way religious groups make converts.

The Yes Scotland campaign also relies heavily on social media.  The term cybernat was one of the Collins English Dictionary’s 2013 Words of the Year.  It refers to Scots who promote independence on Twitter and Facebook.  This is particularly significant since, under the terms of the referendum, 16- and 17-year-olds will be permitted to vote for the first time.

The Better Together campaign has suffered from the absence of a forceful spokesman.  It is headed by Alistair Darling, a former cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s government.  He is generally perceived as grey and devoid of charisma.  He is certainly no match for the bombastic Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish National Party, first minister of Scotland, and the face of the independence movement.

Salmond’s plans for independence include keeping the British pound as the national currency.  However, in January, the head of the Bank of England announced that this would not be possible.  He explained that it would not be in Scotland’s national interest to leave control over currency in the hands of a foreign government.  The ongoing crisis in the eurozone illustrates that currency union without political union does not work.  However, the nuances of his argument were lost on many Scots.  They felt they were being bullied and talked down to by English grandees.

Her Majesty’s Treasury did little to dispel this notion when it released an estimate of the financial impact of independence.  Its report said Scots would lose £1,400 per capita, and then listed 12 ways that money could be spent.  This included, “share a meal of fish and chips with your family every day for around 10 weeks, with a couple of portions of mushy peas thrown in.”  Yes Scotland immediately denounced the report as “patronizing.”  They also dispute the £1,400 loss, claiming Scots would actually be £1,000 per capita better off.

The true financial cost or gain of independence is impossible to calculate at this moment.  If Scotland votes for independence, its new government will enter into negotiations over the division of national assets as well as what share of the U.K. national debt Scotland must assume.  There are no preexisting agreements to govern these negotiations.  Also, much of Scotland’s national wealth is tied up in the oil reserves in its North Sea, and oil prices are notoriously volatile.

Clearly, starting up an independent government will cost some money.  Salmond says this will be around £200 million.  HM Treasury puts the figure at £1.5 billion, and says this could go as high as £2.7 billion.  Public-sector spending already accounts for more than half of Scotland’s gross domestic product.  This would likely increase after independence.  Salmond has made expensive promises.  His plans include rolling back some of the United Kingdom’s recent cuts to welfare handouts and increasing state-funded childcare.

The question of membership in the European Union also looms large.  In 2013, Scottish farmers received £583 million in E.U. agricultural subsidies.  Salmond has argued that an independent Scotland should receive automatic membership.

E.U. leaders, however, have indicated that Scotland will have to start the process of applying for membership from scratch.  Several E.U. countries are currently struggling with secessionist groups within their borders.  They would oppose automatic membership for Scotland because they are fearful of anything that makes secession appear easy or painless.  Scotland would likely lose the valuable opt-outs on some E.U. legislation that the United Kingdom has negotiated for herself.  Also, new E.U. member-states are now required to adopt the euro as their currency.  This is a prospect that does not appeal to most Scots.

One important voice who has remained mostly silent in the debate is Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who made the referendum possible by giving his consent.  He believes strongly in the value of the union.  He said in a recent interview that it would “break my heart” if Scotland left.  However, he is shrewd enough to know that, as a Conservative, his presence is more of a liability than an asset to the Better Together campaign.

Scotland heavily supports the Labour Party.  Today, 40 of Scotland’s members of the British Parliament are from that party and just one is Conservative.  Among Yes Scotland’s strongest arguments for independence is the fact that Scotland is ruled by a government that Scots did not elect.  Said Salmond,

For more than half of my life, Scotland has been governed by parties from Westminster which could not command a majority in Scotland.  That’s a profound democratic deficit.  It affects all areas of Scottish life.

Scots have an enduring hatred for Margaret Thatcher.  She removed subsidies for some of their top national industries, leading to large-scale job losses.  She also introduced a new type of tax in Scotland a year earlier than in the rest of the United Kingdom.  Scots believe they were used as “guinea pigs” to test how it would work.  They believe she discriminated against them because they voted against her party.

Speaking at an independence rally in February, Alex Neil, Scotland’s health secretary, blamed Thatcher for the country’s growing rate of drug and alcohol abuse.  He cited research by Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s chief medical officer:

Since 1980 there has, among working-age men primarily in the west of Scotland, been an increase in the mortality rate during their working years of 60 per cent.  Four conditions [drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence and suicide] are responsible between them for 60 per cent of that increase in mortality since Thatcher took power in 1979.


According to Sir Harry’s analysis, it is down to one factor and that is the total lack of work and the failure to replace jobs in the traditional industries, like steel and coal-mining, with other well-paid jobs.

What has happened is that the men have lost their dignity, their pride and their respect and have turned to drugs, violence and alcohol abuse because they have lost that respect and that dignity.

That is at the core of the social problems we have in Scotland today.

Thatcher and her successor John Major opposed any devolution of power from the British Parliament to Scotland.  During the 1992 election campaign, Major argued that giving Scots some powers would only embolden them to seek full independence.  Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power in 1997 promising Scotland her own parliament to govern many domestic matters.  The Scottish Parliament was duly established in 1999.

Cameron is doing his best to ensure that the Yes Scotland campaign cannot depict him as heir to Thatcher and Major.  He has promised to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament, including full control over income tax, if Scotland votes to stay in the United Kingdom.  Polls show this is actually the option preferred by a large majority of Scots.  They would like to be completely autonomous over domestic affairs but let the United Kingdom handle matters like defense and foreign policy.  However, Salmond responded by saying that Cameron cannot be trusted.  “Nobody will believe Tory promises of more powers for Scotland, because the last time that happened the only thing Scotland got was Thatcherism and 18 years of Tory governments we didn’t vote for,” he said.

Cameron’s support for Better Together goes against his own political interests.  If Scotland’s 40 Labour MPs suddenly disappeared from the British Parliament, his chances of being reelected would improve significantly.  The redrawing of the U.K. electoral map would probably be the most significant impact of independence on England.  The impact on Scotland would clearly be much deeper and more permanent.  Both campaigns have had ample opportunity to make their case.  Now the voters of Scotland will take their future into their hands.