Why Scotland's failed independence may be good for the U.S.

The piping and marching were fun, but Scotland says a sober 'no' to independence.
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High school students in Edinburgh were at the top of the front page of the print edition of The Guardian on Friday.

The piping and marching were fun, but Scotland says a sober 'no' to independence.

Scots and their clansmen and compatriots elsewhere were watching the Internet results Thursday night, expecting the question of independence might not be decided until Scottish breakfast time — kippers or porridge are on offer.

Well, it didn’t quite take that long; it was effectively over by 5 a.m. Scots time or 8 p.m. Seattle time. Independence took a walloping by night’s end, losing 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent. Voters in Scotland’s most remote district, the Highlands and Islands, turned in a 52.9 percent “No” to complete the voting. Ultimately, 84.6 percent of registered Scots voted in the Referendum.

Scots across the nation of five million stayed with the Queen and London's Westminster government district, less from love than fear of unknown consequences. The widespread reach of the Union campaign — only Glasgow and two adjoining districts joined Dundee in voting “Yes” — will quench for now the restiveness for Independence. Scots are in; if not for 300 more years, at least for the near term.

There were early warnings for the pro-independence movement in the voting turnout. Glasgow, a stronghold of support, came in with a 75 percent voting turnout — normally a good turnout, but in an election in which some districts were voting as high as 97 percent of registered voters (and nearly every adult is registered) it was the first indication that the independence surge had faded. By late Thursday night, it looked gone.

Then, at nearly 4 a.m., British Summer Time, the first major city reported: Dundee was going “Yes” by a margin of 57-43 percent, larger than backers expected. This and a few other small areas closed the gap to 51-49 for the “No” vote; but no returns yet from Glasgow or Edinburgh, the big population centers.

Glasgow finally came in at 5 a.m. but only 53.5 percent for Independence; not the big margin the independence cause needed. Scots along the English border overwhelmingly voted Union, nullifying Glasgow. The “No” vote settled in at 55.4 percent when Edinburgh turned in a 61 percent “No” vote at 6 a.m.

Only one of the 32 districts — the lovely, lonely Highlands — waited for dawn and returns from the Hebrides; a huge splotch on the election map, but more sheep than voters. Independence died before breakfast was served.

Scots wha hae (who had) dreamed of independence were turned back by their own caution, by the simple fact that life is good even under British rule, by legitimate fears of sundering the economic and social ties that still bind the island nation.

Perhaps they were also held back by history, recalling the great Scottish leap into the future that wound up binding England and Scotland to create a United Kingdom that stands three centuries and one momentous night later. Scottish financiers in 1698 put together what became known as the Darien Scheme, a colony of Scots on the Isthmus of Panama (long before the Canal), to create a new trading colony in a strategic location. It was one of the great gambles in history, but it failed; disease killed half the 2,800 Scottish settlers and Scotland was bankrupt. The gambit forced Scotland into its union with England, greased with money to bail out the Scottish investors. Since the 1707 Union, the two nations have been one.

They still are.

Scots scared Westminster politicians stiff in the final two weeks, as independence surged and Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to plead for Union and promise to give Scotland additional local control if the Scots voted for Union.

They did, and he’s stuck with the bill. Scotland already runs most of its major services, including education, police, transportation and health. More “devolution” may come, probably including additional taxing authority. Not on the menu, one senses, is the nuclear-free Scotland that was a major Independence demand. NATO nukes will remain at Faslane, the deep-water port near Glasgow. Only a few other NATO ports could handle them (Puget Sound, anyone?) and closure would be difficult, costly and . . . well-nigh impossible.

Scots won’t vote again on this anytime soon. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who promised this vote when his Scottish National Party won a Scottish Parliament majority in 2011, had promised he would not call another election. He told a news conference Friday that he will resign. His successor — when and who is uncertain — could do so, but it’s not likely. While the referendum has put new energy into Scottish politics, it’s also been draining and caused serious tensions among friends.

Watch now for changes in British politics.

Cameron agreed to this vote and he won. It should fortify his position as the Conservative Party leader, but at the same time it keeps Scottish Labour politicians in Westminster. If Scotland had voted for independence the loss of Scottish seats would have cramped Labour and the British left for generations. The three major British parties temporarily marched together to thwart Salmond; how they maneuver in the wake will be interesting.

Who is the next rising Scots star? Labour took a beating in this election but is always ready for a revival. Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, proved to be a positive for the “Yes” campaign and could be in the wings.

Gordon Brown, the United Kingdom's last Labour prime minister, recovered his mojo in the final weeks of the election and, more than any Westminster politician, may have turned the tide. His gray and lackluster tenure as P.M. was replaced by vigor and courage; he is the best-known Scottish politician outside Salmond. Whither Brown?

Although the Scottish vote may throw a bag of cold water on incipient independence movements in Spain, Belgium and some other countries, it will not slow the movement for political reform in the United Kingdom, which faces big issues: an obsolete House of Lords, massive financial support for a Royal Family whose popularity wanes even with a much-loved Queen, and a polarized Parliament and unpopular system of voting. There will be no more talk of independence in Wales, although that talk had never become as serious as in Scotland. But reform remains in the air.

For the United States, this is probably good news: A vigorous United Kingdom is a stronger ally than a weakened Britain and a small and anti-war Scotland. Scots will continue to be skeptical of American adventures in the Middle East and may discourage Cameron from closer links with our efforts in the region. But the UK will remain a strong NATO partner and a major player in the European Union. In both bodies, Scotland would have become a very junior partner and Britain would have lost some of its influence.

A side issue could have repercussions: Young people age 16 were allowed to vote, by agreement of both sides. Is that the future of the electorate in the U.K., perhaps in other modern democracies? Polls thus far reveal no aberration in their voting; in fact the early polls showed them more cautious than their middle-aged elders.

Independence had the piping bands, the flags and the crowds. But in the long run, the movement could not answer the worries of Scots accustomed to three centuries of marriage to a partner they didn’t really love but found comfortable to have around the house.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.