Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Betting Scotland Won't Opt for Independence from the UK

Some votes have more impact than others, as we see from across the Atlantic this season. No matter what the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections, geopolitical ground worldwide is not likely to shift, but if Scotland were to gain its independence Thursday from the United Kingdom it would shake up world markets, disrupt European economic alliances and inspire other separatist regions on the continent to take similar action.

The Scottish independence vote is this year's political marquee event, and it hasn't disappointed observers from around the globe. It's quite a spirited dispute.

But anyone wondering what the the United Kingdom will look like after the votes are tallied shouldn't be surprised to see Scotland decide against independence. More than three weeks ago, on the eve of the surge in support for independence among Scottish voters, I forecast that "no" would prevail in balloting, and the UK would remain intact.

After taking a deep data dive and conducting interviews with international election experts in late August, looking at the polling numbers, historic voting trends in relevant special elections and the two sides' ability to motivate voters, there just wasn't enough time for the yes camp to solidify gains and turn voters' emotions into actual votes (though arguably, there isn't nearly as much available voting data available in the UK as there is in the US, where elections are more of an industry, so there are limits to the modeling by American standards).

Literally on the eve of the historic vote, and despite the late surge in support for independence, the new data and sound expert source-driven intelligence leads to the same conclusion: UK unity wins the day tomorrow in Scotland.

Despite the upward movement by the separatist side in recent polls, the margin is not wide enough to trump the unionists' deeper, more dependable voter base of pensioners, public workers and hardcore Labour Party supporters. In a whirlwind surge of backers, some of the new found backers tend to be "soft supporters," who aren't the emotionally charged protest voters who have been on board with the independence movement since the start of the campaign. Their enthusiasm doesn't ensure they will actually vote.

To his credit, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond rallied the separatist cause with a dominating performance in his Aug. 25 debate with unionist Member of Parliament Alistair Darling, a Labour Party heavyweight. Nearly three-quarters of the viewers on the nationally televised debate on the BBC said Salmond's argument for independence crushed Darling's case for UK unity. In the two weeks that followed, the separatist movement grew in volume and finally broke though to overtake the unionists in a couple of polls. None of those polls showed leads outside the margin of error for the independence side, leaving it a statistical tie.

Then it hit the wall.

With a high level of success, unionists, with the help of top British lawmakers, launched a campaign in the closing 10 days of the referendum that shows all the signs of having halted the momentum of the "yes" forces. The "no" campaign managed to scare many voters into fearing the country would sink into financial anarchy by breaking away from the UK, leaving the new nation without a currency, fewer banks and businesses, thousands of public employes without a job, national security in disarray and individual health care coverage in jeopardy. The unity forces turned independence into the monster waiting to spring out from the closet. Like it or not, it worked because fear motivates people.

Vote watchers, political scientists and history buffs have seen this trend play out on big stage fairly recently. In Quebec in 1995, about three weeks before the vote for independence from Canada, charismatic activist leader Lucien Bouchard was named chief negotiator for the mostly French-speaking separatists. It was a move that rallied the cause and grew the ranks of separatists. By the closing days of the campaign, every poll had Quebec breaking away from Canada.

There was plenty of momentum (some would say more than exists for the independence vote in Scotland right now), and there were some very wise observers who believed that Quebec would be on its own. Then it came time to vote and Quebec chose to stay in Canada, 2,362,648 votes (50.58%) to 2,308,360 (49.42%).

Look for Scotland to channel Quebec when it casts its ballots, but the separatists can walk away with a feeling of accomplishment, given all the new home-rule autonomy England threw at her little cousin to keep her in the family.

(pre-vote analysis and reporting by Kenneth R. Bazinet)

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