Divided, Scots prepare to vote on fate of the United Kingdom

Divided, Scots prepare to vote on fate of the United Kingdom

EDINBURGH - Just hours before Scotland's independence referendum, the fate of the United Kingdom rests on hundreds of thousands of wavering Scottish voters, as opinion polls showed supporters of the 307-year union just a whisker ahead of secessionists.

In an intense final day of campaigning on Wednesday, leaders of both sides beseeched Scots to seize the reins of history in a vote that has divided families, friends and lovers but also electrified this country of 5.3 million.

From the remote Scottish islands of the Atlantic to the toughest city estates of Glasgow, voters will be asked on Thursday to answer "Yes" or "No" to the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?".

Five surveys - from pollsters YouGov, Panelbase, Survation, Opinium and ICM - showed support for independence at 48 per cent, compared with 52 per cent for the union.

An Ipsos MORI poll showed it even closer at 49 per cent to 51 per cent, while a second Survation poll, conducted by phone, showed unionists at 53 per cent and separatists at 47 per cent.

The surveys also showed as many as 600,000 voters remained undecided with just hours to go before polling stations open at 0600 GMT on Thursday.

"This is our opportunity of a lifetime and we must seize it with both hands," Alex Salmond, Scotland's 59-year-old nationalist leader, told hundreds of supporters waving the white on blue Scottish flag who chanted "Yes we can."

"Scotland's future must be in Scotland's hands," Salmond said in Perth, a city in eastern Scotland 460 miles (740 km) north of London.

Invoking 18th-century economist Adam Smith and Scotland's greatest poet, Robert Burns, Salmond implored Scots to ignore warnings from London: "Don't let them tell us we can't. Let's do this now."

With a mix of shrewd calculation and nationalist passion, Salmond has hauled the "Yes" campaign from far behind to within a few percentage points of winning his dream of an independent Scotland.

Facing the biggest internal threat to the United Kingdom since Ireland broke away nearly a century ago, Britain's establishment - from Prime Minister David Cameron to corporate bigwigs and the princes of pop-culture - have united in a last-ditch effort to convince Scots that the United Kingdom is "Better Together."

Cameron's job could be on the line if Scotland breaks away, but the 47-year-old prime minister has conceded that his privileged English background and Conservative politics mean he is not the best person to win over Scots.

That has left the leadership of the unionist case in the hands of the opposition Labour party, winner of 41 Scottish seats in the 2010 British election and the only party with the local support capable of checking the secessionist Scottish National Party.

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot who has in recent days led the battle cry for the union, warned Scots in Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city and a crucial battleground, that Salmond was "leading us into a trap."

"Have confidence, stand up and be counted tomorrow," Brown thundered, fists clenched, to applause and cheers from unionist supporters. "Say to your friends, for reasons of solidarity, sharing, pride in Scotland, the only answer is vote 'No'."

A UNITED KINGDOM?

In the event of a vote for independence, Britain and Scotland would face 18 months of talks on how to carve up North Sea oil and what to do about European Union membership and Britain's main nuclear submarine base.

Scotland says it will use the pound after independence, but London has ruled out a formal currency union, while Britain will have to decide what to do about the nuclear submarine base on the Clyde, which the nationalists want to evict.

The prospect of breaking up the United Kingdom, the world's sixth-largest economy and a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has prompted citizens and allies alike to ponder what would be left, while the financiers of the City of London have warned of market turmoil.

Salmond has accused London of orchestrating a campaign by business leaders aimed at spooking Scots after businesses from BP to Standard Life cautioned about the risks of independence.

The United States has made clear it wants the United Kingdom, it main ally in Europe, to remain together.

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