Scottish support for independence lags
Surveys showed support for independence at 48 percent compared with 52 percent backing for the union.
LONDON - On the eve of Scotland's historic referendum, opinion polls on Wednesday showed support for staying within the United Kingdom marginally stronger than backing for independence, but tens of thousands of undecided citizens agonised over which way to vote.
Leaders and supporters of both sides took to the streets for a final day of campaigning in a country gripped by excitement and hope, balanced by a good measure of dread and concern.
Voters will be asked on Thursday to answer "Yes" or "No" to the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" A "Yes" vote would spell the end of the 307-year-old union with England and the break-up of the United Kingdom, as well as a period of economic uncertainty.
Three surveys - from pollsters ICM, Opinium and Survation - showed support for independence at 48 percent compared with 52 percent backing for the union. They found 8 to 14 percent of Scotland's 4.3 million voters were still undecided before polls open at 5am London time on Thursday.
British political leaders have promised greater autonomy for Scotland if people decide to stay with the union. But independence supporters say it is time for Scotland to make its own decisions free of rule by a London elite.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who has led the independence campaign, urged Scots: "Wake up on Friday morning to the first day of a better country."
In an open letter to voters, Salmond said Scotland's future was in their hands. Invoking 18th century economist Adam Smith and Scotland's greatest poet Robert Burns, he said: "Don't let this opportunity slip through our fingers. Don't let them tell us we can't. Let's do this."
Prime Minister David Cameron told the _Times _newspaper he always thought the contest would be tightly fought. "Whatever the result, we are a democracy. You have to respect the expression of people through the ballot box," he said in an interview.
Cameron has visited Scotland twice in the past week to appeal for it to stay in the United Kingdom's "family of nations". But he is unpopular north of the border, often dismissed as the epitome of a disdainful upper-class Englishman.
In the Times, Cameron defended his decision to agree to the vote and to stick to a straightforward "Yes" or "No" choice, rather than including a third option of more powers for Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Asked if he woke up in the night sweating over the possibility of defeat, he replied: "Of course."
All three polls showed nationalists had gained ground but the fact that supporters of the union were ahead prompted investors to buy the pound, extending sterling's gain against the dollar.
"It is very tight," John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told the _Scotsman _newspaper.
The momentum gained by the "Yes" campaign in the past few months panicked the British establishment. Banks, businesses and investment houses weighed in to predict doom if Scotland broke away, including job losses, rising prices and a capital exodus.
The question of which currency an independent Scotland would use has so far gone unanswered. British political leaders have dismissed Salmond's contention that Edinburgh and London could agree on a currency union under which Scotland keeps sterling.
Pro-union campaigners highlighted official figures on Wednesday which showed employment in Scotland had risen 45,000 in the three months to July, as an example of the United Kingdom being better off together.
The Scottish edition of the Sun newspaper declined on Wednesday to take sides. As Scotland's best-selling daily, its stand had been eagerly awaited but it said in an editorial simply that it believed in the people of Scotland to make the right decision.
In an open letter, 14 former chiefs of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force warned that a vote for independence would undermine defence in both Scotland and the United Kingdom.
If Scots vote for independence, Britain and Scotland would face lengthy negotiations over everything from sharing North Sea oil tax revenue and a future currency to European Union membership and Britain's main nuclear submarine base which Salmond's Scottish National Party wants out of the country.
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.
The White House said it would prefer the United Kingdom to remain "strong, robust and united".
In the face of the biggest internal threat to the United Kingdom since much of Ireland broke away nearly a century ago, the leaders of Britain's three main political parties have promised to devolve more powers to Scotland if it stays.
In a deal brokered by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot who has emerged as the "No" campaign's most compelling advocate, they said they would retain the funding equation that sustains a higher level of public spending north of the border.
British leaders accept that even if Scotland votes to keep the union, the United Kingdom's structure will have to change as the rush to grant so many powers to Scotland will provoke calls for a less centralised state from voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Swathes of former industrial heartlands of northern England and Wales depend on state spending while some English MPs in Cameron's own party have already asked for England to be given more powers.