Scotland voted to remain in the U.K. after an independence referendum that put the future of the 307-year-old union on a knife edge and risked years of political and financial turmoil.
After counting through the night, 55 percent of Scottish voters supported the “no” campaign compared with 45 percent who backed independence. The pound surged ahead of the result, which gave the Better Together campaign a wider margin of victory than suggested in opinion polls. The result was based on 31 of the 32 local authorities declared after a record turnout of more than 90 percent in some regions.
“I accept the verdict” of the people, Alex Salmond, the leader of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, said in a speech. While conceding defeat, he stressed the broad movement that resulted in 1.6 million votes for independence. “The unionist parties made vows and Scotland will expect them to be delivered in rapid course,” he said.
The referendum outcome follows two years of increasingly bitter arguments over the economic viability of independence, the currency to be used, custody of the health service and North Sea oil revenue, leaving a legacy of a divided Scotland while inspiring self-determination movements across Europe.
Salmond and the “yes” campaign will now pressure U.K. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to come good on pledges of more policy making powers for Scotland in the event of a “no” victory that he made with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the main opposition Labour Party.
Outside Downing Street in London, Cameron said the Scottish people had spoken and “we hear you.” “We will ensure those commitments are honored in full.”
The closeness of the contest before the vote, which saw one poll this month put the “yes” camp ahead, unnerved financial markets and triggered a last-ditch attempt by Better Together to persuade voters that “no” would herald some of the changes Scots say they want.
The prime minister and Labour leader Ed Miliband canceled parliamentary business and headed north a week before the vote to campaign in cities and towns across Scotland. They pledged more powers to the Scottish Parliament over taxation and welfare spending in an attempt to arrest momentum in the polls for Salmond after he outshone Better Together campaign leader Alistair Darling in a televised debate.
Darling, a former Labour chancellor of the exchequer, used his victory speech to hail the vote for “postive change rather than needless separation.” Cameron called Darling this morning to congratulate him on his successful campaign.
“They need to get their skates on and deliver,” Matt Qvortrup, senior researcher at Cranfield University and author of “Referendums and Ethnic Conflict,” said of the main U.K. parties. “They should have done this earlier.”
The pound was set for its biggest two-day advance against the dollar in more than a year on the result.
Sterling recouped all its losses since a YouGov Plc poll on Sept. 6 put the nationalists ahead. It extended gains tonight after a survey by the same company after people had voted signaled victory for the “no” side. The currency was up 0.3 percent to $1.6448 as of 7:35 a.m. in London.
As the results unfolded during the night from Scotland’s 32 council regions, early bellwethers suggested a let-off for Cameron and Miliband. In the end, only four local authorities — Dundee, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city — voted “yes.”
Emily Gallagher, an 18-year-old student and “yes” supporter, said she was “devastated” by the result.
“We had a great opportunity and we blew it,” she said over the din of pro-independence chants in central Glasgow. “We’ve had so many Tory governments we’ve never voted for and that’s just going to go on.”
That the referendum took place at all reflected the gulf between politics in Scotland, where Salmond’s SNP has run the devolved administration since 2007, and the rest of the U.K., where Cameron’s Conservatives have the support of just one Tory lawmaker from Scotland.
Cameron and Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement that set out the terms of the referendum in October 2012 with both promising to uphold the result.
The campaigns became increasingly heated and culminated this week in both sides appealing to the emotional side of voters. In the event, it appeared that more of the undecided respondents in opinion polls opted for the status quo.
“This was an event that cannot be captured or understood just by looking at the percentages,” said Harris Mylonas, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University and author of “The Politics of Nation-Building.”