Scots Reject Independence, But The United Kingdom May Never Be The Same
The United Kingdom will stay united, but it may never be the same again.
After more than a year of campaigning and a series of polls over the past month that showed both the anti-independence and pro-independence seemingly leading, the people of Scotland went to the polls yesterday and rejected independence, voting to remain part of a United Kingdom that is likely to see changes in the way its government in any case:
EDINBURGH — With a sweeping majority far wider than had been forecast, voters in Scotland rejected independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum that had threatened to break up a 307-year union, according to the final count on Friday.
The outcome was a bitter blow to those who had mounted a hard-fought campaign spanning two years but reaching back into centuries of shared history. The result also showed the depth of Scottish support for secession, with 45 percent of voters backing the creation of a sovereign state.
While opinion polls before the vote had forecast a contest too close to call, the “no” campaign opposed to independence secured some 55 percent of the ballot, according to the final results, swinging the United Kingdom back from what pro-independence campaigners had depicted as the cusp of a historic breakup with incalculable consequences for Britain’s place in the world.
Mary Pitcaithly, the chief counting officer for the referendum, said final figures showed the pro-independence camp securing 1,617,989 votes while their opponents took 2,001,926, representing a turnout of almost 85 percent.
“The people of Scotland have spoken and it is a clear result,” Prime Minister David Cameron said outside 10 Downing Street in London. “They have kept our country of four nations together. As I said during the campaign it would have broken my heart to see our United Kingdom come to an end.”
He went on to say there could be “no disputes, no reruns” of the ballot and it was now time “for our United Kingdom to come together and to move forward.”
The prime minister spoke shortly after Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and the first minister of Scotland, who led the campaign for secession, conceded defeat in an address to cheering supporters. “I accept the verdict of the people,” he said. “And I call on all the people of Scotland to accept the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland.”
Mr. Salmond stressed that, even though the anti-independence campaign had prevailed, some 1.6 million Scottish residents had voted to end the union, providing what he termed a “substantial” bloc of support to press for new powers promised by political leaders in London.
“Scotland will expect these to be honored in rapid course,” Mr. Salmond said. And he qualified the outcome saying that Scotland had decided “not at this stage to become an independent country,” implying that he would pursue his longstanding dream of a sovereign state in the future.
Leaders of Britain’s three main parties, shocked by the strong showing of the independence campaign in recent weeks, had scrambled to offer Scots more devolved powers if they remained part of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Cameron said new laws would be published by January to redeem the pledges, speaking of a “new and fair settlement” that would affect all four components of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“We now have a chance – a great opportunity – to change the way the British people are governed, and change it for the better,” he said. As for the promises of greater powers for Scotland, made by Mr. Cameron along with the leaders of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, he said: “We will ensure that they are honored in full.”
But he referred specifically to the longstanding and often contentious issue of whether England should have greater parliamentary control over affairs that affect it exclusively.
“We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard,” Mr. Cameron said.
Given the fact that the “No” side had been favored in the polls for months, the fact that it ultimately did win is, in some sense, anti-climactic. After all, we would be talking about things of far more historic, political, and economic consequence this morning if the Scots had voted in favor of independence. Additionally, a successful referendum in Scotland likely would have encouraged secession movements in other parts of Europe such as Spain and Belgium as well as elsewhere around the world. Instead, we have a defeat and, for the most part, a continuation of the status quo. The United Kingdom will stay united, the Scots will continue to use the pound, Britain will continue to base its Trident submarines at a base on the Scottish coast, and there will be no need to consider some of the rather bizarre possible changes to the Union Jack had Scotland voted in favor of independence. As with the two referendums where Quebec voters rejected something akin to independence in 1988 and 1995, the Scots voted in favor of the status quo and that’s not nearly as interesting as the alternative.
Notwithstanding that, however, it does seem clear that questions regarding the powers and autonomy of Scotland and the three other kingdoms that make up the United Kingdom are likely to be central to British politics for years to come. power As noted above, during the course of this campaign the politicians in London on both sides of the aisle made certain promises to the Scots regarding a devolution of power to Edinburgh and greater control over local affairs and the Scots will likely be watching closely to make sure those promises are kept. These promises, though, could also spur demands for the same sort of “devolution” of power from Wales and Northern Ireland. Additionally, it could also lead to a revival of calls to give England similar control over its own affairs as those enjoyed by the rest of the country. Presently, England is the only one of the four areas that doesn’t have its own national assembly, in part I suppose because the Parliament at Westminster is, at least in an historical sense, the “English” Parliament even though it now governs the entire nation. There have been calls in the past for the establishment of some sort of English national assembly, and these developments could revive that. As many analysts have observed, the impact of all of this could be a United Kingdom changed by a form of federalism into something quite different from what it is today.
One aspect of yesterday’s vote that many American commentators have highlighted is the fact that turnout was extraordinarily high. Early estimates state that something close to 84.6% of Scottish voters came to the polls yesterday or voted by mail. Set next to voter turnout rates in the United States, which have averaged 58.25% over the last four Presidential elections and 40.3% over the last three midterm elections, this number looks pretty pathetic and it’s likely to lead many pundits to focus on the fact that our turnout rates are seemingly so low. However, I’m not certain that it’s appropriate to look at the massive turnout in Scotland yesterday and compare it to anything else. Yesterday’s vote was historic, perhaps the most important vote in the history of the United Kingdom and certainly the most important vote in the history of Scotland and it followed a campaign that lasted more than a year in which both sides were bombarding potential voters with their message. It isn’t all that surprising that such a momentous vote would be accompanied by a very high turnout. In more pedestrian elections, the U.K. isn’t all that different from the United States. In the last three national Parliamentary elections, for example, turnout nationwide averaged 62.17%, not all that different from the United States and far below the average of 74.38% that had been sustained from 1983 through 1997. In 2010, some 2,465,722 people turned out to vote in Scotland, while yesterday preliminary figures show that some 3,619,915 people voted. Again, given the issues raised, it’s not surprising that the referendum drew so many people to the polls.
Another thought that occurs to me is that if there is going to be a secession referendum, whether it’s in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, then the threshold for passage should be something more than just a simple majority. Imagine, for example, if the vote yesterday had been much closer and the “Yes” side had won by an exceedingly narrow margin. At that point, you would have a Scotland forced down the road to independence, because a “Yes” vote would leave no choice in the matter, despite the fact that its people were nearly equally divided on the question. Given the importance of the question, it seems to me that the referendum should have had some sort of supermajority requirement for a “Yes” vote in order to ensure that secession wasn’t taking place in a bitterly divided political environment, which would have made the task of governing an already divided Scotland much harder. It could be a 60% threshold, or a two-thirds threshold; either one would be acceptable really. However, given the momentous change that secession represents it should require more than just a bare majority to take effect.
In any case, regardless of turnout issues, the Scots have decided the issue of independence, at least for the foreseeable future if not for all time. However, assuming that David Cameron, Nicholas Clegg, and Ed Milliband follow through on their promises of a devolution of power, then this referendum could end up having a profound impact on the future of the United Kingdom in any case.