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As Scottish support for independence grows, the English scramble to woo back their northern neighbors.
LONDON, UK — A relationship on the rocks is never a pretty sight.
England’s 307-year union with Scotland is imperiled by a Scottish referendum set for September on seceding from the United Kingdom.
Faced with the loss of 5 million citizens and the majority of the UK’s oil reserves, some English have cajoled their northern neighbors.
“We want you to stay,” Prime Minister David Cameron implored a crowd in Glasgow earlier this year. “Think of what we’ve done together, what we can do together, what we stand for together.”
Others have threatened custody battles.
“The pound isn’t an asset to be divided up between two countries after a breakup as if it were a CD collection,” huffed Chancellor George Osborne in February during a speech denying that an independent Scotland could keep the British currency.
Since the referendum was announced a year ago, unionists have consoled themselves with poll numbers that have consistently shown independence supporters to be in the minority.
But last month, news broke that support for independence had surged to its highest level, coming within reach of success for the first time.
Polls also showed that most Scots simply don’t believe the British government’s threats that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to hold on to the pound, as the pro-independence Scottish National Party has pledged.
London’s case wasn’t helped by a recent bombshell interview in the Guardian newspaper with an anonymous senior minister who confided that “of course there would be a currency union” in the event of an independence vote.
The news seemed to come as a shock in England, where reaction to the Scottish debate has been muted at best, apathetic at worst.
But with the “yes” campaign now at 42 percent and “no” at 58 percent, England is reacting like a complacent spouse who’s suddenly come home to find an open suitcase on the bed.
Pop star David Bowie, comedian Eddie Izzard and other celebrities issued public pleas.
In his February speech in Glasgow, Cameron urged Brits to “get on the phone, get together, email, tweet” Scottish friends and family to implore them to stay.
The developments have prompted soul-searching in the country’s three main political parties — all of which formally oppose Scottish independence — as well as Better Together, the official unionist campaign.
It’s become clear that the previous focus on independence’s downsides — currency union questions, the hassles of a suddenly international border — has carried little weight with a Scottish electorate that doesn’t take kindly to the perception of English bullying.
“It comes across as ‘we’re going to make your life difficult,’” says John Curtice of Strathclyde University. “It’s not a good way to sell a message in Scotland, to say that England’s not too happy about it.”
The Labour Party has started sending legislators from the north of England to talk up the longstanding cultural and economic links between their region and Scotland.
Labour MP Phil Wilson appeared in the Scottish parliament last week to make the case for union. He has family on the other side of the border and can’t fathom the idea of needing a passport to visit.
“It’s not in anybody’s best interest,” he says. “It’s not about bullying Scottish people. It’s about trying to put across that they’ll lose everything they’ve got.”
Despite the massive changes Scottish independence would bring to the UK’s geography, economy and national identity, the referendum has stirred surprisingly little passion outside Scotland compared to other separatist movements around the world.
“There’s a remarkable degree of indifference” to the independence question in England, says Michael Keating, chair of Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen.
“Compared with the past of the United Kingdom, compared with Ireland 100 years ago, or compared with what’s going on in Spain or Canada, it’s quite remarkable that people in England seem to be relatively relaxed.”
He points to several reasons.
Scotland accounts for just 8 percent of the British population. It’s geographically distinct. Many in the UK define themselves more by their regional identities than their national one — as Scottish or English, say, rather than British — and losing Scotland wouldn’t change that.
Only people who live in Scotland can vote in the referendum. For Brits elsewhere who do feel strongly about the issue, however, the sense of disenfranchisement has been frustrating.
“There’s absolutely sod-all we can do,” said Toby Lloyd, 53, a therapist in the southwest county of Somerset. “The ‘little England’ that would result from the loss of Scotland is quite a frightening thing, really. It’s a better nation with Scotland in it.”
Lloyd and others who have tried to weigh in on the debate have found themselves shut out by those who’ve made clear the referendum is a decision by the Scots for the Scots, thank you very much.
After working in Scotland last month, the English broadcaster Ben Fogle tweeted, “A week in Scotland and I'm reminded how much I like Scots and Scotland. Please don't leave us.”
As far as unionist appeals go, it was a pretty gentle one. Within minutes, however, his Twitter feed filled with messages from angry Scottish nationalists suggesting he mind his own English business.
“You are not a member of the Scottish electorate,” read one of the milder reposts. “Who is this ‘us’ you refer to?”
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That’s probably not the kind of response Cameron was hoping for when he suggested English folks tweet or text their Scottish brethren — not that anyone has taken up his offer.
Cameron’s love campaign “has gone down like a lead balloon,” Keating says. “I don’t know anybody who’s had such a call, and if they did, it would be counterproductive anyway. The battle has to be won in Scotland.”
With less than six months to go before the vote, both sides are ratcheting up their campaigns. Those who want to see the union live on may have to resort to the final lament of forlorn partners everywhere — baby, please don’t go.
“I believe that what we need to be saying to Scotland is, don’t leave us,” Wilson says. “We are better together.”