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 29 of the 32 local authorities declared after a record turnout of more than 90 percent in some regions.
“I am deeply disappointed like the thousands across the country who put their heart and soul into this campaign,” Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister in Scotland’s devolved government, said on BBC Television. “Our country is never going to be the same after this campaign.”
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.
Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, who heads the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, will now pressure U.K. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to come good on pledges of more policy making powers for Scotland made with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the main opposition Labour Party in the event of a “no” victory.
“I think most people looked at the question and realized that voting for independence was just too high in terms of the Scottish economy,” Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat, said in an interview. “What we have to do now is make sure that we get on and deliver quickly and strongly the agenda for a stronger Scottish Parliament within the U.K.”
The closeness of the contest, 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 want.
A Unionist supporter talks with a Yes supporter in George Square hours befor polling station will close in the Scottish independence referendum on Sept. 18, 2014 in Glasgow.
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.
Cameron, who called Darling this morning to congratulate him on his successful campaign, is due to give a statement at about 7 a.m. in London.
“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.”
As the results unfolded during the night from Scotland’s 32 council regions, early bellwethers suggested a let-off for Cameron and Miliband.
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.
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.
“We’ve had two years emphasizing our differences and now we need to make sense of what we have in common,” said Jim Murphy, a Labour lawmaker in the U.K. Parliament from Glasgow who campaigned against independence.
OVERALL VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE: 44.6% YES; 55.4% NO