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Scotland will soon be suffering from a monumental hangover. There will be a lot of hurt heads, a lot of tears and, without a doubt, an immense amount of anger that will last who knows how long — weeks, months, maybe even years — if Alex Salmond’s dream of independence comes true.

The Sept. 18 referendum on independence is quite unlike any other United Kingdom election I have witnessed. It is much more visceral, with so many complicated currents swirling beneath one simple question: Is Scotland in Britain or out of it? There are a lot of people going with their gut instinct, and you sense that if the outcome goes against them, the simmering rage will finally bubble over.

Rioting in the streets? Perhaps.

The problem for the Unionists is that nothing they can say will ever match that magic potion being served up by the Scottish Nationalists — that beautiful policy that can be summed up in one sweet word: “change.”

If you’re not happy with things at the moment — with the U.K.’s current Conservative government; with the state of the National Health Service; with the perceived snootiness of the English — then simply vote for change.

It’s a message that has been promised by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, by U.S. President Barack Obama and by almost every Western leader for more than a century.

And sometimes they deliver — and often times they don’t. But the promise of change is a powerful message for which there no equivalent counterpunch.

The Unionists are led by Labour politician Alistair Darling, who was chancellor of the Exchequer. He’s steady, gray, rather unexciting — the epitome of a dour Scottish banker.

Up against him is the most charismatic man that Scottish politics has produced in a long time. Salmond is forceful and mouthy; he could argue the hind legs off a donkey. You wouldn’t mind having a drink with him.

It’s not really that the Unionists have been caught napping. It’s that all they can ever promise is more of the same-old, same-old — with a bit of Scottish devolution thrown in.

Until recently, this message was fine. For the past year, the bookies and the pundits all predicted a win for the Unionists.

And then it all changed. It was partly due to a storming performance by Salmond in a second TV debate with Darling. Maybe his message about London’s Tory bogeymen had begun to hit home.

But a strange little rumor began circulating, a rumor that just a year ago would have seemed utterly fanciful: Salmond might sneak by with a win.

An opinion poll last week put the Scottish Nationalists just three points behind. A weekend poll put them ahead. Scottish-based shares are looking shaky; the British pound is down. The Scottish Nationalists have now got their tails up, and the Unionists have no idea on earth how to stem their momentum. They are engulfed in what seems like nothing less than a fight for their very survival.

Everywhere you go in Scotland, the referendum is the only subject on anyone’s lips. I have never seen people so politically engaged. Salmond predicts voter turnout will be a colossal 80 percent — though I think that’s going to be on the low side.

There are a lot of hotheads out there, too. In their second TV debate, Salmond and Darling hollered over each other. That is how it is across Scotland.

Put up a “No” poster in front of your home and it will probably be defaced; write some pro-Unionist remark on the Internet and it will immediately be Tasered by the Cybernats, online supporters of independence. The Scottish Nationalists have always seemed to be much more willing to sock it to the opposition. But is their opposition a great silent majority waiting for the day of the referendum when they will finally stick two fingers up to Salmond — or is it in fact a rump, a silent minority?

After most elections, the losers go off to lick their wounds, and then a little while later they come back to fight another day.

Not this time, though. This time it’s for keeps — with either the independence question kicked out of bounds for at least a generation or Scotland going it alone. The referendum has been thrilling and yet utterly divisive.

Whatever the result, the wounds are going to be deep, and they will take a long, long time to heal.

Journalist Bill Coles has written for papers ranging from the Scotsman to the Daily Mail and the Wall Street Journal. The opinions expressed here are his.

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