EDINBURGH – Scottish voters have resoundingly rejected independence, deciding to remain part of the United Kingdom after a historic referendum that shook the country to its core.
The decision prevented the rupture of a 307-year union with England, bringing a huge sigh of relief to Britain’s political establishment, including Prime Minister David Cameron, who faced calls for his resignation if Scotland had broken away.
The vote on Thursday – 55 per cent against independence to 45 per cent in favour – saw an unprecedented turnout of just under 85 per cent.
A majority of voters did not embrace Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s impassioned plea to launch a new nation, choosing instead the security offered by remaining in the U.K. with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Still, the result sets up a whole new political dynamic in the kingdom, and Salmond in defeat will still be the man who wrangled more powers for his region away from London.
“We have chosen unity over division,” Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, said early Friday in Glasgow. “Today is a momentous day for Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.”
The pound hit a two-year high against the euro and a two-week high against the U.S. dollar as markets shrugged off recent anxiety about a possible vote for independence. In early Asian trading, the pound jumped nearly 0.8 per cent to $1.6525 against the U.S. dollar before falling back slightly. Britain’s main stock index opened higher.
A much-relieved Cameron promised outside his Downing Street office to live up to earlier promises to give Scotland new powers on taxes, spending and welfare. He said the new plans will be agreed upon by November, with draft legislation by January.
“We will ensure that those commitments are honoured in full,” Cameron said. “We have heard the voice of Scotland, now the voices of millions in England must be heard.”
Cameron says giving more to Scotland requires that people in other parts of the U. K. get more rights to govern their own affairs as well, particularly in England.
Salmond conceded defeat and called on Scots to accept the result, but celebrated the vote itself.
“This has been a triumph for the democratic process and for participation in politics,” he said.
The No campaign won the capital city, Edinburgh, by a margin of 61 per cent to 38 per cent and triumphed by 59 per cent to 41 per cent in Aberdeen, the country’s oil centre. The Yes campaign won Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, but it was not enough.
Salmond had argued that Scots could go it alone because of its extensive oil reserves and high levels of ingenuity and education. He said Scotland would flourish on its own, free of interference from any London-based government.
Many saw it as a “heads versus hearts” campaign, with cautious older Scots concluding that independence would be too risky financially, while younger ones were enamoured with the idea of building their own country.
The result saved Cameron from a historic defeat and also helped opposition chief Ed Miliband by keeping his many Labour Party lawmakers in Scotland in place. Labour would have found it much harder to win a national election in 2015 without that support from Scotland.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, returned to prominence with a dramatic barnstorming campaign in support of the union in the final days before the referendum vote. Brown argued passionately that Scots could be devoted to Scotland but still proud of their place in the U.K., rejecting the argument that independence was the patriotic choice.
“There is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lined side by side,” Brown said before the vote. “We not only won these wars together, we built the peace together. What we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder.”
For his part, Cameron – aware that his Conservative Party is widely loathed in Scotland – begged voters not to use a vote for independence as a way to bash his party.
The vote against independence keeps the U.K. from losing a substantial part of its territory and oil reserves and prevents it from having to find a new base for its nuclear arsenal, now housed in Scotland. It had also faced a possible loss of influence within international institutions including the 28-nation European Union, NATO and the United Nations.
The decision also means Britain can avoid a prolonged period of financial insecurity that had been predicted by some if Scotland broke away.
“This has been a long, hard fight and both sides have campaigned fiercely,” said Norma Austin Hart, a Labour Party member of Edinburgh City Council. “This has not been like a normal election campaign. There have been debates in town halls and school halls and church halls.
“It’s been so intense,” she said. “But the people of Scotland have decided.”