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The Strangely Silent Majority in Scotland’s Independence Referendum

EDINBURGH, Scotland — One of the most surprising things about the Scottish independence referendum, at least here in the country’s capital, is the seeming discrepancy between advocates of independence (the "Yes" camp) and Unionists (the "Nos"). Most of the final polls released ahead of the vote suggest that the Unionist side is ahead, in some ...

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EDINBURGH, Scotland — One of the most surprising things about the Scottish independence referendum, at least here in the country’s capital, is the seeming discrepancy between advocates of independence (the "Yes" camp) and Unionists (the "Nos"). Most of the final polls released ahead of the vote suggest that the Unionist side is ahead, in some cases by as much as 8 percent. (There were also some outliers that still gave the pro-independence camp a good shot.)

Yet that’s not at all how things look on the ground. As you walk around the historic city the pro-independence forces are visible at every turn, while the Unionists are conspicuous mostly by their absence. "Yes" stickers and posters, in the blue-and-white colors of the Scottish flag, are ubiquitous, and those who sport them are positively bursting with elan. Their opponents, or at least those who are willing to mark themselves as such, crop up almost exclusively at polling places, where they try to remind voters by their presence that at least someone still favors keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom.

It’s also striking that most members of the "No" camp that I’ve met here aren’t Scots but visitors from other parts of Britain — people like Nathan Hazlett, a 29-year-old teacher from northeastern England sporting a "No" sticker over his Union Jack T-shirt as he stands outside a polling station in downtown Edinburgh. "I’m sort of wondering where the rest of our side are," he says. "I’ve been looking all day and I’ve barely seen any."

The Unionists say that the reason is intimidation. Some are afraid to show themselves openly because of threats by their opponents. They have been dubbed "traitors" or pelted with eggs. In one town on Thursday, someone daubed the words "Vote Yes or Else" on a polling station. Labor Party leader Ed Miliband cut short his appearance at an Edinburgh shopping center two days ago, and canceled two others, after he was jostled by a hostile crowd.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the head of the independence camp, dismisses the accusations, saying that both sides have "nutters." His sympathizers insist that the British media are exaggerating such cases to discredit the independence movement. Sorting out the veracity of such claims is hard amid the intense emotions generated by the campaign.

A deeper psychological truth may be at work, though. Hazlett laments that the "Yes" camp claims the "high moral ground," and he’s probably on to something. Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s referendum, historians will undoubtedly conclude that British Prime Minister David Cameron made a big mistake by allowing the referendum question to be phrased positively — "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Advocates of the Union have struggled to formulate an upbeat message, harping instead on negatives and warning of risks but rarely finding arguments that celebrate the attractions of remaining inside the United Kingdom. All the joy, the energy, and the fun have been on the side of the separatists. If you see a guy wheeling down the street on a unicycle while playing "Auld Lang Syne" on the banjo and harmonica, you can bet that he’ll be wearing the insignia of the pro-independence campaign.

Young people, too, often support independence — one reason why Salmond and his government pushed through a rule allowing the voting age to be dropped to 16 for the referendum. Nor is the "Yes" camp confined to "ethnic" Scots. One of the most ardent supporters of independence I met today was a third-generation Edinburgh Sikh: "I don’t want hospitals to be privatized, because that’s what they’re doing in England," he told me. "And most of the oil is ours."

Nonetheless, the brutal reality for the separatists is that for all their soaring rhetoric they have spent almost the entire campaign trying to catch up to those who wish to keep Scotland in the U.K. And even if momentum is on their side, they still don’t seem to have closed the gap. Yet there is a sense in which they win even if they don’t. The independence campaign has endowed its followers with a sharp new sense of agency, and their forceful talk of the U.K.’s "democratic deficit" and attacks on the remoteness of the U.K.’s political establishment, have resonated with many non-Scots as well.

Even if the bid for independence is defeated, Great Britain will not be going back to business as usual.

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