EDINBURGH – As the polling stations closed Thursday night at the end of Scotland’s independence referendum, the nationalists still believed they were about to confound the polls and win.
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The proof was all around them: In the streets, on cars and lampposts in windows, wherever you looked, signs and stickers urged voters to tick the Yes box on the ballot paper. Opposing exhortations to vote No and keep the kingdom united were few and far between.
Thousands of volunteers who for months, up until the last hour of polling, had been going door to door had multiple stories of citizens who told them they had overcome their misgivings, changed their minds and were voting for independence.
Those not filling an official role in the vote-counting filled the pubs that remained open overnight or streamed to the city squares, preparing to celebrate the birth of their new-ancient country.
Four hours later, when the results began to be announced and the first voting areas reported majorities against independence, they weren’t concerned. They were sparsely populated regions in the distant north, far from the cities and their nationalist fervor.
But then came results from closer-by districts, strongholds of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and there the majority also voted to remain in the union.
Victories for Yes in a couple of areas – including Scotland’s fourth-largest city, Dundee – nearly brought them even, but then area after area declared wins for No, many of them key targets for the Yes campaign. The gap reopened and hopes for independence quickly began to fade.
Some news organizations were already calling the referendum for the unionists when at 5 a.m., Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, announced that a majority of 53 percent had voted for independence. The cheers in Edinburgh’s Phoenix Bar rang hollow; they already knew that wouldn’t be enough. Men and women began leaving the crowded pub in tears, their places taken by journalists who were not yet aware that the contest was over.
One of them asked a woman tottering toward a taxi how she felt. “Do you want a massive kick in the nuts?” she asked. “Even then you won’t feel as bad as I do now.”
“I’m 50, and ever since I was a wee boy I’ve been dreaming of an independent Scotland,” sighed Ian Kinnock, leaning on the pub door and asking his wife for a cigarette despite having quit.
“A few hours ago I was euphoric. I was convinced it was happening. And then they announced that Angus, which is a Scottish patriotic area, had voted No. That proved that the referendum has been sold. I’m going now home to tear up my UK passport.”
After a few puffs he calmed down a bit: “I’m drunk and heartbroken now. We’ll get up tomorrow morning and see carry on from here.”
Friends stood around him, exchanging conspiracy theories of the erasable pencils used for ticking the ballot papers and the oligarchs whose billions had bought the rights to the North Sea oil off Scotland’s shore. They refused to believe that the Scottish people, in a fair and democratic vote, had turned down the opportunity to become independent of London and the English.
As the greyish dawn came up, they were forced to admit that the majority of Scots had “betrayed their people,” as David Cameron (“don’t worry, I’m no relative of that prime minister”) described it.
A mile away, in a small square outside Holyrood, the home of the Scottish Parliament that may soon receive new powers but will not become the parliament of a sovereign country, around 100 young people remained from a much larger crowd that had gathered there earlier to greet a new independent morning.
City workers were already gathering up the empty beer cans. A lone bagpipe player tried to encourage them to sing auld Scottish songs, but they preferred football chants and shouting against the “lying” BBC, which the nationalists have accused of being biased against them.
The pollsters had been wrong, just not in the way the independence supporters had hoped.
Over the past few weeks their surveys indicated a closing gap, a few points at the most. One poll two weeks ago for the first time pointed to a mere two-point advantage for the Yes camp. That panicked London’s establishment and delegations of politicians traveled north en masse, beseeching the people not to leave the union.
Ultimately, the gap proved much larger: 55.3 percent (with the participation of an unprecedented 86 percent of registered voters) voted against independence, a gap of more than 10 percentage points.
A few minutes after 6 a.m., Alex Salmond, the SNP’s leader and a wily political operator who had forced Britain into the referendum, took to the stage to make his concession speech. But he wasn’t conceding defeat: He admitted that independence was now off the agenda, immediately adding the caveat “at this stage.”
He continued to demand that the prime minister and other party leaders in London fulfill their commitments to add significant new powers to the Scottish Parliament and government in Edinburgh, which he leads.
Prime Minister Cameron was quick to appear as well, facing the cameras at 7 a.m. in Downing Street and promising to push forward new legislation regarding Scotland’s status, to be drafted in two months.
But he added a land mine to these promised rights: They will have to come together with similar changes to the status of the other nations of the United Kingdom, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Britain has been saved from dismemberment; the U.K. will remain the United Kingdom. But today it is embarking on a constitutional revolution that will change the historic law that has governed it for centuries.