Breaking Up is Hard to Do

British flag

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
| published Sept. 19, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff


After an intensive and hard-fought political campaign fraught with emotional ups and downs, voters in Scotland decided that divorce from the United Kingdom was not in their best interest. The marriage which has lasted for more than 300 years will remain intact, though observers insist that in the end it will still come with costs for both sides.

Voter turnout was high—one of the biggest turnouts in Scottish history—and included the participation of citizens as young as 16. The final tally showed that 55.3 percent of Scots supported remaining a part of the Kingdom, while 44.7 percent wanted independence.

Supporters of independence, led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, had gained considerable momentum over the past months, and the total “yes” votes cast show the deep reach of the independence movement: 1.6 million voters sided with Salmond. But a late surge of opposition to independence, fueled in part by Gordon Brown, brought the two sides to within a hair’s breadth in most polls. In the final days and hours leading up to the vote (Thursday), the outcome was too close to call.

But on the day voting began, it was clear that the undecided voters were breaking decidedly toward a “no” vote, and in the end the vote was not nearly as close as many had predicted.

The “yes” wins were most decisive in four Scottish councils: Dundee City, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow (City), and North Lanarkshire. A look at the overall council area map of Scotland shows that the “no” vote clearly gained unexpected momentum in the final days, as several councils tilted toward a “no” vote by close to 55%. The most decisive pro-unity votes came in Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, and the Orkney Islands.
Map of Scotland
Economics and market power became the central source of argument in the long debate over Scottish independence. Questions of over economic stability and viability were raised, triggering fears that an independent Scotland could face rough times if uncoupled from the British economy. The issue of what currency would be used became an emotional flashpoint as well. And concerns about the healthcare system, banking, and the disposition of billions of pounds’ worth of North Sea oil drilling and refinery equipment—not to mention the steady source of income—became troubling in the extreme for some voters.

The heightened force of the independence movement, despite its loss on Election Day, nevertheless spurred British Prime Minister David Cameron into a number of public concessions, including the shifting of more autonomy to Scottish policy-makers and greater input into the Union’s political and economic affairs. Also forged from the campaign were promises by Cameron and other opponents of independence that more powers would be ceded to the Scottish Parliament in specific areas: welfare spending, public works, and taxation.

Younger voters were generally believed ahead of time to have the potential to tilt the momentum toward pro-independence, and the fact that 16-year-olds would qualify to participate seemed to be a harbinger of the success of the “yes” movement. But toward the last days of the campaign, and as the narrative became more heated and emotional, opinion polls showed that even younger voters were split almost evenly on whether to leave the U.K. or to remain a partner with the Kingdom.

Opinion polls showed that the race was getting very close after Salmond gave a better-than-expected performance in a widely-watched television debate on the issue of Scottish independence. His opponent in the debate was a former Labour Party chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling. But a last-minute surge of campaigning by politicians opposed to independence may have driven the momentum back toward the “no” position.

Financial markets were jittery in the days leading up the referendum, but seemed to rally and stabilize after the “no” vote win. Economic concerns seemed to take center stage on many of the arguments, pro and con. When the polling places opened on Thursday, few were willing to predict the outcome. The “no” victory was larger than expected on both sides.

Nevertheless, even downhearted supporters of independence acknowledge that London’s acceptance of many of the concessions toward greater autonomy constitutes a moral victory, and Cameron has stated he intends to make good on those promises to shift more financial and economic power toward Edinburgh.

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