Edinburgh (AFP) – Scots rejected independence on Friday in a referendum that left the centuries-old United Kingdom intact but headed for a major shake-up that will give more autonomy to both Scotland and England.
Despite a surge in nationalist support in the final fortnight of the campaign, the “No” secured 55.30 percent of the vote against 44.70 percent for the pro-independence “Yes” camp.
After a campaign that fired up separatist movements around the world and stoked political passions across the country, turnout was 84.6 percent — the highest ever for an election in Britain.
“No” campaigners across Scotland cheered, hugged and danced as the results came in the early morning and British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “delighted”.
“It would have broken my heart to see our United Kingdom come to an end,” he said outside his Downing Street offices in London, looking visibly relieved after averting a humiliating defeat that could well have cost him his job.
Many “Yes” activists watched dejected and in tears in the streets of the Scottish capital Edinburgh, although First Minister Alex Salmond urged them to take heart from the huge numbers — 1.6 million — who backed independence.
“I don’t think any of us, whenever we entered politics, would have thought such a thing to be either credible or possible,” the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, who will continue to head the regional government, told supporters in Edinburgh.
The result reassured investors worried about the economic risks of a break-up and the pound reached a two-year high against the euro while European stock markets rallied.
The CBI business lobby group said the result would be greeted by a “collective sigh of relief across the business community”.
A “Yes” vote would have brought to an abrupt end a union between Scotland and England stretching back to 1707 and was being closely watched by separatist movements who are also now clamoring for a referendum, like the Catalans in Spain.
The British government must now deliver on promises made in the heat of the campaign to give more powers over tax, spending and welfare to the devolved government in Edinburgh.
In his televised address, Cameron said he would offer all parts of the U.K. greater local control — heading off growing demands from right-wing Conservatives and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) for England to be given more powers.
“Just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues,” he said.
In what would be a radical shake-up of the constitutional order, he said these new powers would be delivered “at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland”, suggesting legislation would be drawn up as soon as January.
Emily St Denny, a politics professor at Stirling University, said the effect was that “Scotland gains almost everything except for full independence”.
“The context is difficult because English and Welsh lawmakers are unhappy with the promises made to Scotland,” she said.
Andrew Blick, a politics lecturer at King’s College London, said: “The undertakings made in the last desperate phase of the campaign by the leaders of the Westminster parties will mean further drastic change for an intact United Kingdom.”
In Edinburgh, nationalists struggled with their emotions.
Charlotte Darroch, one of many 16- and 17-year-olds who were allowed to vote in a British election for the first time, said the result was “just crushing, quite devastating”.
“I genuinely thought the feeling on the ground was different,” said the 16-year-old, wearing a blue-and-white Scotland flag over her school uniform.
But Louise Fleming, 21, who also lives in the Scottish capital, said she was “relieved”.
“We can’t expect everything to be great tomorrow but the right outcome has occurred,” she said.
Scotland’s largest city Glasgow was among some big wins for the “Yes” campaign, but the margin was not enough to mitigate a flood of “No” votes across the country.
The indication was that better-off and rural areas had voted “No” while urban centers and poorer parts voted “Yes”.
Cameron said the referendum had produced a “clear result”, adding: “Now the debate has been settled for a generation.”
However, Salmond left the door open to a vote in the future, saying that Scots had opted “at this stage” to stay but had shown “substantial” support for going it alone.
Harry Potter author and pro-union supporter J.K. Rowling, who is English but lives in Scotland, said Scots should be “proud”, whatever their differences.
“Been up all night watching Scotland make history. A huge turnout, a peaceful democratic process: we should be proud.”
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