If yesterday’s referendum in Scotland was the biggest party ever for Western democracy — with an 86% turnout and the whole world seemingly holding its collective breath — today is the hangover for all sides. The referendum went down to defeat by a much-larger margin than predicted, with roughly 55% of the vote rejecting independence in favor of the 307-year-old union. While the decision may not have been a surprise, as late polling showed the No vote regaining momentum, the decisiveness of the rejection may have put this question to rest for a very long time:
Given a historic chance to go it alone as an independent nation, Scottish voters early Friday chose to stick with the United Kingdom following a campaign that was marked by extraordinary turnout and profound division.
With the vast majority of the vote counted as of 6 a.m., the “no” side had built up an insurmountable advantage, with a 55-percent majority compared to 45 percent for the “yes” camp. Unionist leaders proclaimed that Scotland had voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Supporters erupted in raucous celebration.
A “no” vote means new life for a 307-year union that had appeared in grave danger of breaking apart. The unionist victory was already being heralded early Friday by relieved British officials who had come perilously close to having to preside over a messy and humiliating divorce.
Instead, Britain was set to remain whole for the foreseeable future, and “yes” voters’ dream of an independent Scotland could be dead for a generation or more.
A ten-point loss doesn’t even qualify as a moral victory for Alex Salmond, who nonetheless tried to put the most upbeat spin he could find on the results. “This has been a triumph for the democratic process and for participation in politics,” Salmond proclaimed, but not for the project he has run for the last two years. The Scottish National Party leader will face plenty of questions about his stewardship of the campaign on an issue which has been boiling up for the last several years. James Kirkup poses a couple of them in the Telegraph:
Having fought for a Yes and lost, Mr Salmond has to decide how to respond to defeat. Does he, as he said before the vote, accept the result and accept that no fresh question can be asked about independence for a generation? Or does he question the tactics of Better Together and, by implication, the legitimacy of the result? He will also face questions about his plans to remain Scottish National Party leader, and whether he will seek re-election as First Minister in the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016.
Answering the first questions are easy. Had it been a narrow loss, Salmond might have questioned the integrity of the result and demanded another and another referendum until he tired out the unionists altogether. The ten-point loss after victory seemed to be within their grasp pretty much discredits any attempt to delegitimize the result, as does the extraordinarily high turnout. The real questions will be about Salmond’s future after becoming the nationalist leader who booted the independence question. Perhaps the heartbroken Yes voters will be in a forgiving mood, but that seems unlikely.
The larger questions, though, will arise in London. British politicians from David Cameron on down wooed Scots by promising them more autonomy than they have now, which was certainly much less problematic than dissolving the union at the time they made those offers. Now the Scots will call in those pledges, and they’re not alone:
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Scottish vote to remain in the United Kingdomhas put the question of independence to rest “for a generation,” but he pledged constitutional reforms to give Edinburgh greater control over its own affairs.
“There can be no disputes, no reruns – we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people,” Cameron said in a statement outside No. 10 Downing Street, his official residence, shortly after the results of the vote. …
“Scotland voted for a stronger Scottish Parliament backed by the strength and security of the United Kingdom, and I want to congratulate the No campaign for that – for showing people that our nations really are better together,” he said.
Cameron says he’s committed to giving Scotland new power over taxes, spending and welfare. He said he wants draft legislation by January, and that it should encompass other parts of the U.K. as well, not just Scotland, but Wales and Northern Ireland as well.
“We now have a chance — a great opportunity — to change the way the British people are governed, and change it for the better,” the prime minister said.
At the moment, though, no one has a specific plan to meet those pledges. Labour and Conservatives have differing approaches, and no one knows whether either will satisfy the Scots, or the Welsh, or the Northern Irish. The effort will be complicated — but success will be critical. If Cameron and Parliament do not deliver on these promises, then Salmond will have the perfect lever by which to revive the independence question, and any sense of betrayal on expedited devolution will produce a much different voter dynamic the next time this question gets posed. As Alex Cochrane writes at the Telegraph, this isn’t necessarily the end of the independence question — in fact, it might just be the end of Round One.