Edinburgh (AFP) – Scotland’s pro-independence leader Alex Salmond said the “eyes of the world” were on a momentous referendum next week as officials reported record numbers registering to vote on breaking away from the United Kingdom.
Salmond said the September 18 vote would be “a process of national empowerment”, as new figures came out showing a record 4.3 million people had registered to vote — higher than for any previous elections in Scotland.
“Scotland is on the cusp of making history. The eyes of the world are upon Scotland,” Salmond, Scottish First Minister and the head of Scotland’s current devolved government, said in an Edinburgh speech.
“On September 18, we the people hold our destiny in our own hands.”
British media said new figures meant 97 percent of the electorate had now registered to vote, including many 16- and 17-year-olds who are allowed to take part under referendum rules.
Polls show Scottish voters are almost evenly divided between the “Yes” and the “No” sides although one survey so far has put the pro-independence camp just ahead of the unionists.
The most recent, published on Wednesday by Scotland’s Daily Record newspaper, showed 53 percent against independence and 47 percent in favour, without counting undecideds.
The vote would bring to an abrupt end a 307-year-old union between England and Scotland and create the newest state in Europe since the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
– ‘Huge pressure on Madrid’ –
Around 100 journalists from around the world were present at Thursday’s press conference, with many asking about what Scotland’s relation to their country would be.
Many nations with separatist movements are following the campaign closely, including Spain where the government has ruled out a referendum for Catalan independence or devolution.
On Thursday hundreds of thousands of Catalan nationalist demonstrators, some waving the blue and white Scottish flag, filled the streets of Barcelona in a mass rally to demand a vote like Scotland’s.
“People in Catalonia don’t necessarily want independence but they want to have the right to vote. And they see that here it’s possible,” said Carles Costa from TV3 public television in Catalonia, who was at Salmond’s press conference.
“A ‘Yes’ vote would put a huge pressure on Madrid. Scotland is not a remote country somewhere in the world. It’s just next door,” he said.
“Even with a ‘No’, people in Catalonia will say, ‘Why is this not possible in Spain?'”
But Shuhei Nakayama from Japanese broadcaster NHK said most people in Japan had “a confused idea of the situation”.
“Most don’t know Scotland is already a region with many powers. Some think it’s a country already as they have a football team,” he said.
“It’s very interesting to see a nation that might break away without any violence,” he said.
The campaign — and the promise of greater devolution if the “No” camp wins the vote — has also bolstered demands from local authorities for greater powers within England and Wales.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is on Friday expected to launch a report calling for a major programme of devolution within England after the next general election in May 2015.
– ‘Responsible and prudent’ –
The International Monetary Fund on Thursday warned that a vote for independence would raise “complicated issues” and could upset financial markets.
“While this uncertainty could lead to negative market reactions in the short term, the longer term will depend on the decisions being made during the transition,” IMF spokesman Bill Murray said.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has said it would relocate its registered offices in case of a “Yes” vote, saying this was the “responsible and prudent thing to do,” but underlining it would not mean moving jobs south.
RBS was bailed out by the British government following the 2008 financial crisis and its announcement came after London-based Lloyds Banking Group also said it had plans on possibly switching key operations from Scotland to England.
Edinburgh-based RBS is 81-percent owned by the British state, which also retains a 25-percent stake in bailed-out Lloyds.
Big business leaders have mostly lined up against independence, although the chief executive of Scotland’s largest fund manager, Aberdeen Asset Management, has said that an independent Scotland would be “a big success”.
[Image: Scottish pro-independence leader Alex Salmond, via Agence France-Presse]