Scotland votes “no” on independence, will remain in the UK

People wait for the result outside the Scottish Parliament as voting in the referendum closes on September 18, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Scotland. Polls have now closed in the Scottish referendum and the United Kingdom await the results of this historic vote. With a substantial turnout at the polling stations the vote is too close to call and the result is expected in the early hours of Friday morning. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The results of the Scottish independence referendum are in, and the answer is no.

The referendum asked only a single question: Should Scotland become an independent country? Scottish voters have decided that it should not. With 26 of 32 voting districts reporting, both the BBC and the Guardian have predicted the referendum is set to lose by a comfortable margin. Although some votes have yet to be counted, Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland, has conceded defeat, telling the Guardian that “there isn’t a yes vote tonight.”

Heading into Thursday’s vote, the polls had too close to call. Most suggested a small edge for the “No” campaign, but by narrow enough margins — and with enough questions about whether the surveys were representative — that the world was left in doubt about what the final result would be. Now we know: Scotland will not become independent after all.

Why Scotland rejected independence

There are a few facts that are key to understanding the referendum’s failure. First, this is not a huge surprise. The pro-independence campaign has never been able to show that it had the support of a majority of Scots. Heading into the referendum campaign, independence trailed in the polls by more than a 20-point margin. Although it made up significant ground in the weeks preceding the vote,  a “yes” result was always going to be a long shot.

Second, financial markets reacted negatively to polls showing the pro-independence campaign gaining ground, which may have spooked undecided voters. The value of the pound plummeted on September 8, after a Yougov poll showed a narrow margin in favor of independence. Stocks in Scottish companies also fell on that news, with the Royal Bank of Scotland, Standard Life, and the SSE utility company each falling more than 2 percent, and the Lloyds banking group falling more than 3 percent. That volatility may have convinced some voters that independence was too financially risky.

The unsuccessful case for independence

The independence referendum had its roots in political differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Scotland is more liberal than the relatively conservative, but wealthy and populous, south of England. Those differences have led Scottish leaders to push for more independence, in order to pursue a more liberal political agenda.

But even though the independence referendum wasn’t about freeing Scotland from oppression, national pride still played a role in the campaign. The Yes campaign presented a vote for independence as a way to show pride in Scotland and belief in its ability to thrive on its own – a position whose sunny optimism continued to win over voters until the very last minute. Scottish tennis champion Andy Murray, for instance, tweeted Thursday that he had just voted for independence after becoming disenchanted with the “negativity” of the anti-independence campaign.

However, promises by the leaders of the three major UK parties to grant Scotland greater autonomy in the event of a “no” vote — the so-called “devo-max” option — may also have persuaded some undecided voters that full independence wasn’t necessary. Right now, the Scottish parliament already has the right to set and administer Scottish policies in a number of areas, such as health care and education, but others are “reserved” to the UK parliament at Westminster. Under devo-max, the Scottish parliament would be given control over most of the reserved matters, with just a few exceptions, such as those that involve foreign policy or national defense.

What will happen next

Although the UK won’t lose Scotland entirely, that doesn’t mean that the status quo is going to prevail. The thorny question of how (or whether) to implement “devo-max” still remains.

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained here, devolution is already a point of contention in UK politics, because England doesn’t have its own parliament, while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do. English policy is set by the UK-wide parliament at Westminster. That means that Scottish MPs get to vote on matters of English policy, but English MPs don’t get to vote on matters that have been devolved to Scotland. (This debate is known as the West Lothian question — named after an area of Scotland.)

That system is generally seen as benefiting the Labour party. Unsurprisingly, that makes it particularly unpopular with the Conservatives. Already, some Conservative MPs have said that they would demand that the West Lothian question be resolved before further devolution is granted. David Nuttall, MP for Bury North, which is near Manchester in the North of England, told the Financial Times, “You cannot have devolution and then say Scottish MPs will still be voting on matters that do not affect Scotland. We will need to draw up new rules on this as part of the settlement. There is a group of us that will push for that.”

Regardless of how the devo-max debate goes, however, there probably won’t be another independence vote. Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has said that the vote was a “once in a lifetime” decision and that he would not pursue another one if independence failed to gain majority support.