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Initial Thoughts on the Independence Referendum

No matter what the outcome may be, the referendum has been an enormous triumph of popular political engagement and participation.

As I write this around 9:00 Central time, few results have been announced and it is still too early to know for certain what the exact outcome of the Scottish referendum is. However, the ‘No’ side has had the early lead and appears favored to win at this point. Early results showed disappointingly lower turnout for the ‘Yes’ side in some key areas, including Dundee and Glasgow, but even here the turnout was extraordinary high compared to other elections (75% or higher). In some places, turnout shot up to 90+% and was projected to be around 85% for the entire country. No matter what the outcome may be, it seems certain that the referendum has been an enormous triumph of popular political engagement and participation. Last-minute polling suggested that the ‘No’ campaign will prevail by about eight points. That seems to indicate that the British establishment’s belated, panicky, and rather desperate offers of enhanced autonomy towards the end of the campaign halted the the momentum for independence.

Of course, the success of the ‘No’ campaign was expected from the start, and if that weren’t the case a yes-or-no referendum probably wouldn’t have been allowed. The unionist victory is somewhat anti-climactic and obscures just how remarkably competitive the election became. The pro-independence activists had to climb a very steep and tall hill to overcome the many built-in advantages of the unionist side, and they came away with a better result than most people thought possible. If someone had said that the pro-independence forces would receive 45% of the vote a few months ago, he would have been mocked as a fantasist. Because there appeared to be the outside chance of an outright win for independence in the final weeks, the otherwise strong ‘Yes’ result will now seem lacking. As all observers of this election know by now, the ‘No’ side ran a thuddingly incompetent, uninspired campaign that by all rights deserved to lose, but it turned out to be just good enough to ward off the nationalist challenge for the time being. In the process, the unionists were prepared to bribe Scottish voters with almost anything short of independence, and that will end up having long-term repercussions for the country’s constitutional arrangements and the politics of both England and Scotland. Whatever happens, Cameron and the other party leaders are going to pay a heavy political price for their poor handling of the issue, and they have to know that this result is almost certainly just a delay for Scottish independence for a decade or so rather than a final settlement of the question.

I admit to a certain disappointment with a ‘No’ result, because it was the predictable outcome and because it vindicates an utterly unworthy political establishment that deserved to be humiliated at the polls. The good news is that some members of that establishment will probably get their comeuppance, but I am skeptical that the promise of much broader devolution of powers will end up being honored. It is just as likely that unionists have told Scots whatever they thought the latter wanted to hear and will later renege on the offer when the threat of independence has receded. It may turn out that the unionists “saved” the union by making promises that they couldn’t possibly fulfill, which will just lead to even more discontent with U.K. government.



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