Scottish Hangover

A day after their referendum on independence, Scots take stock.

Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images
Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

GLASGOW, Scotland — On Friday morning, a dozen or so supporters of Scottish independence sat drinking beer and waving blue-and-white Scottish flags in an empty George Square.

Two nights earlier, the square in the center of Glasgow had been the scene of public rallies attracting tens of thousands of fierce supporters, ready to say "Yes" in Scotland’s referendum on separating from the United Kingdom. Now the separatists found themselves outnumbered by camera crews. The mood was quiet despondency, not riotous anger. "I’m devastated," said Martin Goodfellow, 28, from Glasgow.

This morning, thousands of Scots woke up (if they went to bed at all) like Goodfellow, with their spirits in the gutters, trying to come to terms with a crushing defeat. After two years of campaigning and thousands of debates and public meetings, Scots voted against independence by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. Turnout was a record high: nearly 85 percent. But even as Scotland will remain part of Britain, the experience of the vote may change the country forever.

Accepting defeat in the early hours of Friday morning, Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and Scotland’s first minister, said that the referendum had been "a triumph for the democratic process."

"We have touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by politics, these sections of the community have touched us, and touched the political process," Salmond said of a campaign that caught the imagination of millions in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.

Within hours, Salmond announced his intention to step down as leader of the SNP and Scotland’s first minister, saying in a statement, "I am immensely proud of the campaign which Yes Scotland fought and of the 1.6 million voters who rallied to that cause by backing an independent Scotland."

With its leader and champion gone and its cause defeated at the ballot box, is Scottish nationalism over? Maybe not.

Before the referendum, most political analysts in Scotland said that whoever won Glasgow would win the day. Indeed, before the 2011 Holyrood election — the first that handed more power to the newly empowered Scottish parliament — the SNP struggled to gain a toehold in Glasgow, Scotland’s most populous city and one traditionally very strong for the Labour Party. Yet yesterday, Glaswegians voted for independence by 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. Unfortunately for independence supporters, turnout at 75 percent, although significantly up on previous elections, was lower than the national average and nowhere near enough to push Yes over the lead.  

It turns out that voting for the SNP is not the same thing as backing an independent Scotland. The overall story of referendum day was of nationalists struggling in areas of traditional electoral strength — Moray, Aberdeenshire, and the Western Isles — but coming out on top in erstwhile Labour heartlands in the west of the Scotland.

The Yes side had less success in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. Despite a very active campaign on the ground, particularly in working-class communities, No still came out comfortably ahead, by 61 to 39 points, an even wider margin than some unionists expected.

As Scotland’s political and financial capital, Edinburgh was particularly worried by the uncertainties about the prospect of independence, from the future of Scotland’s currency to membership in the European Union. With so many reliant on jobs in universities, financial services, and the legal industries, all areas that "Better Together" (the No campaign) had claimed would be destroyed by independence, it was no surprise that many in Edinburgh chose to stick with the union.

The Yes campaign won only four of the more than 30 electoral areas in Scotland. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise: Polls in the months leading up to the vote predicted defeat for the nationalists. The No campaign had relentlessly issued dire warnings of impending economic doom if Scots left Britain. Yet 10 days ago, a new poll gave the Yes vote a lead, raising hopes and fears on both sides.

The nationalists’ difficulties could be seen on the ground as Scotland went to the polling. In Easterhouse, a sprawling 1960s-era public housing complex on the outskirts of Glasgow, Yes placards hung from almost every lamppost and seemed to occupy every second living room window. (Throughout the two-year long referendum, Yes had been by far the most visible campaign.) But most of the people trickling out of the polling station at the St. Rose of Lima primary school on Thursday seemed, quietly, to be voting for preserving the union.

"I think we’re better together," said Marie Doherty, a local mother, echoing the No campaign’s name. She was worried about the prospects for North Sea oil and the economic stability of an independent Scotland. Her husband also voted No.

Easterhouse is Scotland’s political-apathy capital: Less than 35 percent here voted in the 2011 Holyrood elections. The Yes campaign hoped to win the day by coaxing the apathetic out of their stupor with promise-filled slogans like "Another Scotland Is Possible." But the No campaign’s negative messages, warning of the dangers of independence, won the day. "I don’t normally vote at all but I was worried about this so I came out to vote No," said one local woman.

On Thursday, Easterhouse, like the rest of Scotland, was filled with quiet No voters and loud Yes supporters. Just after lunch, a cavalcade of mothers pushing strollers turned up the path to the polling station. In unison they sang "Flower of Scotland," a nationalist song. They wore T-shirts and badges that said "Yes!" and waved flags as small children ran among their buggies.

"These past few weeks I think Scotland’s found a voice. We know now that we don’t have to settle for what the government gives us," said Tracy, a mother who had organized the group to come vote en masse.

When the first results started rolling in on Thursday night, it became clear that Tracy’s wish wouldn’t come true. Count after count reported significant leads for the No campaign. But even if the secession campaign is over, the months leading up to the referendum have profoundly changed something about Scotland’s political culture.

At lunchtime on the day of the vote, Julie stood outside the Janet Hamilton Community Centre in Coatbridge, a once-busy industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow. Julie, a tall, thin woman in her early 30s, wore a "Yes" rosette and handed out flyers that said "Vote Yes!" to the trickle of people who came out of the pebble-dashed postwar council flats across the street.

"I’m feeling optimistic. I think we can win," said Julie, a health services worker volunteering with the campaign. She said she had never been involved in a political campaign before Scotland’s independence referendum. Such stories have been the common currency of this historic vote, with tales of everything from 16-year-olds to grandmothers joining the campaign trail.

And what if Scots voted to stay part of the union with England? "I’d be gutted," she said. "I’d take to my bed for the weekend."

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