EDINBURGH,(Sept 19) —- 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 campaigned with mounting passion in 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.
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“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.
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“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.
Before dawn, after a night of counting that showed a steady trend in favor of maintaining the union, Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, effectively conceded defeat for the “yes” campaign that had pressed for secession.
“Like thousands of others across the country I’ve put my heart and soul into this campaign and there is a real sense of disappointment that we’ve fallen narrowly short of securing a ‘yes’ vote,” Ms. Sturgeon told BBC television as the votes showed strengthening support for the “no” campaign.
Shortly after Ms. Sturgeon’s comments, Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and seat of its Parliament, reported a huge gain for the “no” camp, with more than 194,000 voters rejecting independence, compared with almost 124,000 in favor. Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, had voted in favor of secession by a smaller margin.
The decision spared Mr. Cameron a shattering defeat that would have raised questions about his ability to continue in office and diminished his country’s standing in the world.
But while the result preserved a union molded in 1707, it left Mr. Cameron facing a backlash among some of his Conservative Party lawmakers. They were angered by the promises of greater Scottish autonomy that he and other party leaders made just days before the vote, when it appeared that the independence campaign might win. Some lawmakers called for similar autonomy for England itself, and even the creation of a separate English Parliament.
The outcome headed off the huge economic, political and military imponderables that would have flowed from a vote for independence. But it also presaged a looser, more federal United Kingdom. And it was unlikely to deter Scottish nationalists from trying again.
President Obama had made little secret of his desire that the United Kingdom remain intact. Britain has long prided itself on a so-called special relationship with the United States, and Britain’s allies had been concerned by, among other things, Mr. Salmond’s vow to evict nuclear submarine bases from Scotland, threatening London’s role in the West’s defenses.
As the vote approached, the margin between the two camps narrowed to a few percentage points, and at one point, the “yes” campaign seemed to have the momentum.
That was enough to alarm the leaders of Britain’s three main political parties. In a rare show of unity, they promised to extend significant new powers of taxation to Scotland, while maintaining a formula for public spending that many English voters saw as favoring Scots with a bigger per capita outlay.
Alistair Darling, who had led the “no” campaign, told supporters that the vote had reaffirmed the bonds underpinning the United Kingdom. “Let them never be broken,” he said, calling the outcome “momentous.”
“We have taken on the arguments and we have won,” he said.