Scottish voters have rejected independence from the rest of the United Kingdom by a margin of almost 10 percentage points, according to the results of an historic referendum released on Friday morning.
With 31 out of 32 regions declared, 55.42% had voted against going it alone compared to 44.58% who wanted Scotland to break the 300-year-old union with England.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called for unity in a speech at 10 Downing Street, saying the argument had been settled “for a generation”. “Now is the time for our United Kingdom to come together and to move forward,” he said.
Cameron said the result paved the way for a new balanced constitutional settlement for all of Britain, including England, and that draft laws granting Scotland new powers would be published by January.
“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.
“And all this must take place, in tandem with and at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland.”
Unionists cheered, kissed and drank wine at a party in Glasgow while nationalist leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond conceded defeat in front of the Scottish flag in Edinburgh.
“Scotland has by a majority decided not, at this stage, to become an independent country. I accept that verdict of the people and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit in accepting the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland,” Salmond said.
Salmond laced his defeat with a warning to British politicians in London that they must respect their last minute promise of more powers for Scotland.
“Scotland will expect these to be honoured in rapid course,” he said before walking off the stage.
Sterling strengthened sharply against the dollar and the euro while share prices looked set to open higher in a relief rally.
The campaign for independence had galvanised the country of 5.3 million but also divided friends and families from the remote Scottish islands of the Atlantic to the tough city estates of Glasgow.
Transfer of powers
Cameron has promised to hand new powers to Scotland which could amount to effective home rule – though experts warn that agreeing these could be messy.
Cameron said the Scottish National Party (SNP), which had fought for independence, would join talks on transferring further powers to Scotland.
Britain’s three main political parties agreed ahead of the referendum that Scotland could set more of its own laws from next year if rejected independence.
Analysts say London needs effectively to hand Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond full control of domestic policy – and even this may not kill off calls for another independence referendum.
“If ‘yes’ loses, Mr Salmond still wins,” political commentator Andrew Rawnsley wrote before the vote in Sunday’s Observer newspaper. “Even if the union wins a reprieve, the argument is clearly not going to end there.”
Negotiations will now start between Cameron’s Conservatives, coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the main opposition Labour party on what extra powers to give the Scottish Parliament, which was set up in 1999 and already controls areas like health and education.
A policy paper due in November will outline what these new steps will be, which may include decisions on tax and welfare benefits. They are likely to include greater control over taxation and some state benefits payments. Draft laws on decentralisation could then be ready by January.
This fast timetable was agreed when Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown stepped into the debate after an opinion poll just 10 days before the vote gave the yes camp a lead.
Brown has promised Scotland “nothing less than a modern form of home rule”.
“To rush headlong into new legislation may curry favour in the short term but is unlikely to provide a lasting settlement,” wrote Professor Nicola McEwen of Edinburgh University in a blog this month.
McEwen told AFP that Salmond’s Scottish National Party, in power north of the border, is also likely to put forward its own proposals, “which would look completely different to what is on the table now”.
Assuming an agreement can be reached for Scotland, it would increase pressure for more powers to be handed to other parts of the United Kingdom: the English regions plus Wales and Northern Ireland.
The promises made by the British government have also prompted politicians in Cameron’s Conservative party to call for the same treatment for England.
Newspapers in northern England on Friday united to demand more powers for their regions in a “fair deal after so many promises were made to Scotland during the referendum campaign”. – AFP, Reuters