How the Scots Are Still Scaring Britain

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (center), British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Cameron’s mother, Mary, at the Wimbledon tennis championships, London, July 2013

Around lunchtime on Friday, September 19, an advocate of a united Britain could have looked at a political map of Scotland and, like the Queen (if David Cameron’s account to Michael Bloomberg can be believed), purred with pleasure that a disaster had been averted and all would now be well. Television showed Scotland’s familiar outline—ragged with islands and inlets to the west, smooth and solid to the east—and almost all of it colored magenta by the BBC to indicate that the electorate had rejected independence by voting No in the previous day’s referendum.

The shade deepened according to the strength of the No in each of the twenty-eight (out of thirty-two) local authorities that had voted that way. The nation’s perimeter looked almost purple: the border country with England and the northern archipelagoes of Orkney and Shetland had rejected independence by a two-thirds majority. Elsewhere, in the cities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen and all the way down both coasts, the No figure was around 60 percent. The lowest margin, represented in the palest pink, came in Inverclyde, which chiefly comprises the industrially derelict town of Greenock, where only 50.08 percent of voters wanted to persist with the union.

The Yes-voting areas were represented in light blue on the BBC’s map, but they weren’t immediately easy to make out: two small blobs for the cities of Dundee and Glasgow with two larger blobs for East Dunbartonshire and North Lanark. Dundee had the darkest shade: 57.35 percent had voted Yes there, while the other three registered between 51 and 55 percent.

Mike King/

But what were these four small blue splashes of Yes compared to the great magenta lands of No around them, where it sometimes seemed as if even the sheep had turned up to be counted? A record turnout of 84.6 percent—higher than in any UK general election since the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1918—had split 44.7 percent to 55.3 percent against independence. In the last days of the campaign, polling showed the two sides much closer.

This was an unexpectedly decisive result and soon after midday Alex Salmond announced his intention to resign as Scotland’s first minister and the Scottish National Party’s leader. In two years of campaigning, Salmond had always spoken of the referendum as an opportunity for Scottish independence that wouldn’t be repeated for a generation—this would be the moment that had to be seized, it was more or less now or never. (The No campaign insisted for similar reasons—to maximize turnout—that the decision would be final, that there could be no going back.) Now, however, Salmond struck a different…

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