If Scotland votes for independence in Thursday's historic referendum, the Yes side will claim its victory is one of optimism over fear. But part of its surge in the polls has been due to much more negative sentiments: a loathing for Britain's governing Conservative Party, and a feeling that Scotland and England have drifted apart after more than 300 years together.
For decades, the cause of Scottish independence has been a minority pursuit, supported by about a third of the population. Even when the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority in 2011 elections – a result that put Scotland on course to this week's vote – it did so with the support of many who said they'd rather see the United Kingdom stay together.
Just a few weeks ago, it still seemed safe to bet on a victory by the pro-union No side. But polls have narrowed rapidly since then – with several showing a win by the pro-independence Yes camp is now within reach – as a group of previously apathetic Scots who don't usually participate in elections have decided this is the moment to take a political stand. Many say they're ready to vote "Yes."
Three new polls released Tuesday all put the No side ahead with 52 per cent of decided voters, compared with 48 per cent for Yes, a lead that has shrunk dramatically from 20 points just a month ago.
The three polls disagreed, however, on how many voters were still undecided, with the share of those yet to make up their minds ranging from 6 per cent to 14 per cent. Martin Boon, director of the ICM polling company (which found 14 per cent were still undecided) said he worried the referendum would be a "polling Waterloo" with all the major firms embarrassed if the final result was a "Yes."
The shift toward Yes been partially motivated by disillusionment among Scots with the political direction that England is taking, and a sense that the government in London doesn't represent them. Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives won just one of 59 seats here in the 2010 British general election.
The rise of the far-right UK Independence Party, and the growing debate about whether Britain should leave the European Union, have furthered the feeling among Scots – who generally vote left-of-centre and are more affectionate toward the EU – that England is heading down a path that they shouldn't follow.
"People feel like Scotland and southern England are drifting apart. The Conservatives are really hated here, and there's a concern that if the Conservatives win next year's Westminster elections, their policies will get worse and hurt Scotland," said Thomas Lundberg, a lecturer in politics at the University of Glasgow. "There's also a sense that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about it."
That shift has been guided by the Yes side leader Alex Salmond, who has emphasized the supposedly more social-democratic nature of Scotland throughout the campaign. He has also argued that no one can govern Scotland better than the Scots themselves.
The Conservatives have been hated here since Margaret Thatcher decided in 1987 to test her reviled "poll tax" on Scotland first. Before giving a pair of speeches in the past 10 days, Mr. Cameron had largely stayed out of the referendum debate to avoid inflaming anti-English passions. (There are whispers that decision may cost him his job if the Yes side wins.)
What has changed in recent years is the trust Scots previously put in the Labour Party as the protector of their interests at the British Parliament in Westminster.
Labour's image was badly dented here by Tony Blair's decision to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was deeply unpopular in Scotland. More recently, it has been hurt by the party's decision to question benefits many Scots hold dear, such as free university tuitions for Scottish students and free old-age care. Labour won twice as many votes as the SNP in the 2010 British election. Polls now show that upward of 40 per cent of Labour supporters are planning to vote Yes on Thursday.
That's a condemnation of the No campaign, which was headed by former Labour cabinet minister Alistair Darling, as well as of Labour Leader Ed Milliband, who has largely failed to convince Scots he can topple the Conservatives in next year's election. The No camp has been criticized for being overnegative and focusing on dire warnings about the economic costs of independence while the Yes side has tugged at the heartstrings with its upbeat "this is our moment" narrative.
The No side has raised difficult questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether the new country would be automatically admitted into the EU. But Mr. Salmond has dismissed such worries as "scaremongering," saying that everything will negotiated in the 18 months between the referendum and a planned declaration of independence in March, 2016.
The Yes side appears to have won over many voters who have become involved in politics for the first time. While turnout in the 2010 election was 64 per cent, a whopping 97 per cent of Scots have registered for their referendum ballot, and pollsters expect upward of 80 per cent will vote on Thursday.
"We're talking about 20 to 30 per cent of the electorate who usually don't vote in any elections. … They're apathetic about the traditional party system, but they're getting energized," said Jan Eichorn, a chancellor's fellow in social policy at the University of Edinburgh.
That newly engaged electorate is made up primarily of young people and the working class – two groups that polls show lean toward voting "Yes." Dr. Eichorn said that because those same two groups are usually under-represented in polling, the Yes side might in fact be doing even better than the published polls show. "Nothing would surprise me. Anything between 45 per cent 'Yes' and 55 per cent 'Yes' is possible," he said.
Hence the panic in London. The three mainstream parties there – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats – have joined forces in a last-minute push to aid the No side, highlighted by a Tuesday promise to maintain a higher level of per-capita public spending in Scotland than in the rest of the U.K. That followed earlier promises to devolve greater taxing and spending powers to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
It's not clear what impact the outpouring of last-minute love will have on Scots. "People are asking why they didn't put [the last-minute promises] on the table a year ago, or two years ago," Prof. Lundberg said.