EDINBURGH, Scotland — The silent majority of Scots hailing from the Highlands, the islands, and the industrial heartlands rose up in record numbers on Thursday to put an end to the brash and noisy campaign for Scottish independence.
To walk through virtually any Scottish town this week was to be confronted by an apparently unassailable army of people voting Yes to an independent Scotland. Clad in kilts, blue-and-white T-shirts and flags, they out-shouted and, in some cases, shouted down their opponents.
When opinion polls suggested the No campaign had the upper hand in the referendum, the Scottish National Party insisted that the pollsters had failed to identify the coming grassroots revolution. Inside the voting booths this week, there was a very different revolution underway. The record turnout of 84 percent, over 90 percent in some districts, was made up of people who chose actions over words. Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, had foretold of this awakening during the greatest speech of his life, which was delivered on the eve of the poll. "Hold your head high,” he said. “The silent majority is no longer silent.”
Brown’s hometown of Fife was the district that officially delivered a heavy victory for the No campaign that was announced soon after 6 a.m. local time Friday. By then, the Yes campaigners had largely fallen silent themselves.
Outside the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh, where thousands had hoped to celebrate independence, a predawn drizzle was falling on the remaining 100 or so Yes campaigners who gave a stirring rendition of the national anthem accompanied by the mournful wail of the bagpipes.
The piper, Chris Davidson, insisted that the fight would go until contemporary Scots could emulate Robert the Bruce and William Wallace by ending the political union with England. “There will always be independence,” he said. “There was a No vote today, but one day there will be a Yes vote.”
Four hundred miles south, David Cameron was breathing a sigh of relief and preparing to make his own speech on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street. In a desperate last-ditch concession to tempt the Scots into rejecting independence, the prime minister had offered a package of additional powers that would be granted to the Scottish parliament in the next year.
The unexpected 10-point margin of victory, by 55 to 45, will allow Cameron’s critics, mostly in his own party, to claim that he was fooled into giving up sovereignty for no reason. Having committed to allow the Scots greater control of tax and spending, Cameron had little choice but to offer greater devolved powers to the rest of the U.K.
In the act of saving the union, the prime minister has been forced to completely redraft it.
On the international stage, Cameron’s new domestic problems will attract little attention. More importantly, he has frustrated other separatists and those who would foment separatist movements, like China and Russia.
"Now the debate has been settled for a generation. No dispute, no re-runs," Cameron said.
The dream of an independent Scotland, which had looked impossible just two and half years ago, will slip back into the realm of historians and fantasists for decades.
During a dramatic late surge, there was a moment when separation looked a likely scenario. Indeed, to members of the Yes campaign in the final days, victory was a foregone conclusion. Like the Republicans who were convinced that the 2012 opinion polls were “skewed” in favor of President Obama, great swaths of Scottish independence campaigners were certain they were headed for victory no matter what the pollsters had said.
Polling day followed the same pattern as much of the campaign, Scotland’s town squares were filled with enthusiastic Yes voters, chanting and cheering. In Glasgow, as many as 10 Yes badges, T-shirts and posters were on show for every piece of No merchandise.
Some No supporters admitted that they were nervous to be seen questioning Scotland’s ability to govern itself. For certain sections of the independence movement, their opponents were little more than traitors.
In George Square in Glasgow city center, at least two furious confrontations had erupted before lunch. In the end, Scotland’s biggest city voted for independence but turnout was not high enough to make up the shortfall across the rest of the country.
Speaking once the majority of the results were in, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, was still trying to claim that the size of his vote might confer some kind of legitimacy upon the Scottish National Party.
"I think all of us in this campaign will say that 45 percent, that 1.6 million votes, is a substantial vote for Scottish independence and the future of this country,” he said, before raising the specter of another referendum. “Scotland has by a majority decided not, at this stage, to become an independent country.”
Some of his supporters seemed to take the news with more grace. Dylan McDonald, 17, whose face was painted blue and white, said the nation had spoken. “A lot of people are fearful of what would have happened and I can respect that—they have concerns about their families and job security,” he said.
He shrugged his shoulders, which were cloaked in a large Scottish flag, and headed back to the pub.