Supporters of Scottish independence did not see the result they were hoping for, but it is fair to say that democracy won in a national referendum that included 85 percent of Scotland’s eligible voters. At 8:06 am on Friday morning, Sept. 19, “No” crossed the line. The result, 55 to 45 percent for “No,” a tad wider than some anticipated, is clear but brought no closure to the debate; the conversation moves into even newer, just as uncharted waters.
The campaign electrified the Scottish nation as support for independence surged in the final weeks into a brief, tantalizing lead. In the biggest grassroots democratic turnout in decades in Scotland and the United Kingdom, a staggering 97 percent of eligible voters registered, including over 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds, the first time they could vote.
On the morning after the night before, everyone sought to calculate what this all means. We’ve never been here before. Commentators agree that this has emerged as a vote for change. The Westminster political establishment has, in the words of leading Scots entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter, “been shocked to its core.” The “No” campaign may have won, but over one and a half million U.K. subjects (we’re not citizens) did vote to break up the union. The BBC’s chief political correspondent, Nick Robinson, said that the referendum “lit the touchpaper on the explosive question of where power lies in the U.K.”
Where does all this go now? As I write this, on the day after Referendum Day, it is too soon to say, such has been the excitement and energy. It will take some time for the adrenaline to dissipate. It is difficult, though, to see how things can return to a status quo that has been so shaken.
The yes vote came from a massive ground-up movement of many disparate groups; the antonym of and a direct challenge to Westminster politics. The majority vote for no ensured that the United Kingdom still exists, but a significant proportion of the Scottish populace rejected what they perceive as a broken political model. Independence supporters in Scotland and increasingly in other parts of this shared archipelagic democracy are turning against what many perceive as elitist governance, marked by privilege and a sense of entitlement. Average people feel detached; the concentration on London and the South-east is too much for many of the U.K.’s northern subjects.
The debate has been often good-humored, intelligent and passionate, but there has been plenty of division, too. Who will be the agents of reconciliation? Leading up to the vote, U.K. churches appeared, on the whole, nervous about getting too involved in the independence debate. Three weekends before the vote, the Scottish Catholic bishops had limited themselves to encouraging participation and careful thought and prayer, with particular attention to Catholic social teaching. Many thought that the church could have provided a more detailed account of the specific relevance to social doctrine to this contest. The moderator (leader) of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. John Chalmers, on BBC radio, congratulated the nation on its mature conduct of “this wonderful process,” urged people to take down their signs and banners and proposed a reconciliation service on the first Sunday after the vote (Sept. 21) at Edinburgh’s historic St. Giles Cathedral.
What happens next? Prime Minister David Cameron, moving quickly to contain the situation, claimed on Friday morning that the question of Scottish independence is now settled “for a generation”; others are not so sure. All that grassroots energy has to earth somewhere. In Glasgow, a source reports, people are already putting together components of a new, pro-independence, left-of-center party.
The U.K. general election will be held on May 7, 2015; the nation’s place and role in Europe will be a central point of contention. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond quickly suggested that the existing Scottish government would not seek another referendum “any time soon.” But in a concession speech early in the morning on Sept. 19, he acknowledged that the Scottish people had voted against outright independence with three telling words: “at this stage.” Later that day he resigned. It is anyone’s guess what—or when—the next stage will be, but it is likely to be just as enthralling as this referendum campaign has been.