Scots discovered at 6:08 a.m. Friday that they won’t break up the United Kingdom to become an independent nation. In the Glasgow hotel where the much-maligned Better Together campaign gathered to watch the results, music began to pound, a union jack was unfurled and the party started – lasting just long enough for relieved and bleary-eyed campaigners to do a little dance.
A “Yes” victory party would have been a lot more fun. Earlier in the night, I left the “The Tartan Army” packed into the all-night Radical Road pub in Edinburgh, ready with their kilts and bagpipes and balloons, already well-oiled with seven more hours of counting to come.
“Oh we'll win,” said Hugh Scott, a self-employed bagpiper and former infantryman, who served seven tours in Northern Ireland and one in Iraq. “We have something positive to fight for. When I see the unionists, they just seem so unhappy.”
He was spot on about the emotions. If you could bottle the enthusiasm, energy, and – sometimes – aggression of the Yes campaign, Scotland wouldn’t need the North Sea Oil the nationalists were banking on to fund independence. While the roughly 55 percent to 45 percent referendum result is devastating for them, they won’t give up, as Scottish National Party Alex Salmond emphasized in his concession speech: Scotland had made clear it does not “at this stage” want to be independent, he said.
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In one sense, Salmond is right. Even No voters acknowledged Friday morning that the referendum has changed everything. The government in London will have to follow through on its promises to devolve further powers to Scotland, made in the final days of the campaign, or else face a “neverendum” of future attempts by Scots to keep voting until they get the answer they want.
And, as Cameron said in an early morning speech that reflected his near escape from political death had he “lost” the U.K., the powers handed to Scots North of the border will force constitutional change for England and Wales, too.
No doubt this will be messy, and disappointed Yes voters will be angry. But the Scots, and Britain as a whole, have achieved something rare and, I think, more worthy of pride than any nationalism. They asked a question that in most parts of the world, at most times, results in war; they debated it for more than two years; and then an astonishing 85 percent of them, including 16 year olds, turned out to vote on whether to secede. They said no, and the losing side conceded.
A question that was often put to me and other reporters by Serbs during the early stages of the wars in Yugoslavia asked what would happen if Scotland were to secede from Britain. It was impossible to convince them that, no, unlike the Serbs and now Russia, England would not respond by rolling tanks into Dundee, but would allow a free vote. Now we have proof.
The vote in Scotland is important not just for Britain, but also for the signal it sends to the Balkans and other secession-minded regions and their governments around the world at a particularly fragile time. First, it tells Catalans and others that it is possible for a nation that has existed since 834 to decide that resuming full independence isn’t inevitably in their best interests. To the governments, it says that granting the right of self-determination can produce the best of all results: A nation that actually votes to remain united with yours.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.