A giant panda named Tian Tian explores her enclosure at the Edinburgh Zoo on Dec. 16, 2013. / Scott Heppell, AP
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - For want of a panda, the kingdom was lost.
Such is the hubbub around next month's historic vote for independence in Scotland that the prospects of a Chinese panda giving birth in Edinburgh Zoo are being hailed as a potential game-changer - for the "yes" campaign.
To a Scottish population overwhelmed by campaign rhetoric of how well or how poorly Scotland would do economically if it seceded, with neither side making a compelling case, the Sept. 18 vote has begun to take on a circus atmosphere.
Last week, The Scotsman newspaper published the results of a study that said people who are afraid of spiders are more likely to vote "no." The next day, a tabulation of Scottish celebrities' voting intentions was out, with Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling, singer Susan Boyle and former British prime minister Gordon Brown in the "no" camp, and Sean Connery, the original James Bond himself, among the "yes" voters.
Casual conversations I had with various Scottish pubgoers, taxi drivers and fellow golf enthusiasts while on a three-day trip here all yielded the same reaction when I broached the vote. A shrug, a shaking of the head, and surprise that after two years of talking about it, they are finally going to get to vote. Only one woman I spoke with said she would vote "yes."
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the "yes" campaign, acknowledges that his forces are behind but notes that the polls are tightening. The latest showed the "yes" campaign picking up a few percentage points to 38%, while the "no" votes have 47%.
The breakdown is generational, with younger people more keen to test independence and older folks preferring the devil they know, i.e. England, the ancient enemy they have been bound to for more than 300 years. The old joke goes that St. Peter asked God why he made Scotland so beautiful and why its people were chosen to be so blessed. "Don't worry," God replied. "Wait till you see who I give them for neighbors."
Most folks think Salmond will need a catalyst to sway the vote, with the pregnant panda Tian Tian a rooting favorite. Salmond was instrumental in doing trade deals with China after it lent the bear to the zoo in 2011, and he'd benefit from a national feel-good moment tied to a birth.
The search for diversions underscores that there is little passion tied to the campaigns, no pressing reason for Scotland to go one way or the other. Golf will still be played at St. Andrews' Old Course, the British pound will still be the local currency, allegiance to the queen will still hold, and the pubs will still be full of football (soccer) fans on Saturdays.
But there is a passion for separation somewhere, if not in Scotland. It's on the minds of separatists in Catalonia in Spain, in the Flanders region of Belgium and in Northern Ireland. And here could be Salmond's real catalyst.
On Sept. 11, one week before the Scottish vote, Catalan marks the 300th anniversary of its loss of independence. Last year, 1.6 million people linked hands to mark Catalan National Day and agitate for their own country. The Catalans don't have the legal opportunity for a referendum, but a Scottish "yes" vote could raise the profile of their cause in a dramatic way. The Catalans will not squander the opportunity to give the Scottish "yes" campaign a nudge if they can. Look for something big to happen that day - and for the Scots to notice.
Europe's history is one of changing borders and national allegiances. Three hundred years is not a long time here. Indeed, while most folks I spoke with said that they would vote "no" and that they expected the vote to fail next month, they all expect there will be another vote in a few years. And another after that. Scotland has time on its side.
Callaway is USA TODAY's editor in chief.
Read the original story: Voices: Of pandas, spiders and Scottish independence