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2014 VICE News Awards: Most Surprisingly Tense Independence Vote — Scotland

A simple question — "Should Scotland be an independent country?" — caused an unprecedented political awakening in England's northern neighbor and put the entire United Kingdom on a knife edge.
Image via VICE News

Check out more of the 2014 VICE News Awards here. 

After two years of preparation and anticipation, Scotland's attempt to democratically leave the United Kingdom ended in a jumble of quiet relief and dashed hopes when the country's independence referendum failed to gain a majority vote.

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

That simply stated question caused an unprecedented political awakening in a country that has traditionally had a lower turnout for elections than the rest of the United Kingdom.


A record 97 percent of Scotland's 5.2 million residents registered to vote, and an equally remarkable 85 percent of them made it to the polls. Just 64 percent of Scottish voters cast ballots in the 2010 British general election.

All sectors of Scottish society wanted a say in the vote. Two prisoners mounted a legal challenge for the right to cast ballots, arguing the significance of the outcome warranted their participation. The inmates lost their case, but the voting age was lowered from 18 to 16 for the referendum. Some teenagers told VICE News the referendum was all anyone spoke about at school in the days leading up to the vote.

Yes or no? Scotland goes to the polls for a historic independence vote that could shatter Great Britain. Read more here.

As the margin tightened between the yes and no camps, leaders at Westminster reached a state of frenzied anxiety.

"It's a momentous decision: there will be no going back," British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in an emotional plea in the Daily Mail.

The Queen delivered a carefully crafted statement outside a Sunday church service in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, stating simply that voters should "think very carefully about the future."

The leaders of the UK's three main political parties came together to deliver "The Vow," a promise of further devolution and increased independence for Scotland.

On judgment day — September 18 — more than 2,600 polling stations were open from 7am until 10pm.


As the results trickled in, anticipation turned to resignation in the pubs and venues where pro-independence Scottish voters had gathered to await the outcome.

When the final verdict was announced, it became clear that the silent majority had spoken: 55 percent of the country voted to stay in the union.

"Now the debate has been settled for a generation," Cameron said in a speech the following day. "There can be no disputes, no reruns — we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people."

He also noted that the referendum "electrified politics in Scotland."

The Queen acknowledged that there would "be strong feelings and contrasting emotions," after the vote, but said "we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.

"Knowing the people of Scotland as I do," she continued, "I have no doubt that Scots, like others throughout the United Kingdom, are able to express strongly-held opinions before coming together again in a spirit of mutual respect and support."

Scotland wraps up historic day of voting as first referendum results are declared. Read more here.

Many Scots came of age politically over the past two years. Scottish National Party membership has quadrupled — rising from some 22,000 on referendum day to over 95,000 today. The SNP is now Britain's third-largest party — more than twice the size of the Liberal Democrats.


At their helm is newly appointed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman in 24 years to lead a national government in the UK. She began her term by announcing that she would be the most accessible first minister ever. Over the past three months, she has embarked on a national tour, during which 80,000 people came to see her speak, culminating in a sold-out November 22 appearance at Glasgow's Hydro Arena, a venue that fits 12,000.

During a two-hour-long event that included musical performances and video addresses, Alex Salmond — who resigned his position as SNP leader hours after the failed independence referendum — commended the crowd for their loyalty. "Haven't we come out like torpedoes since the referendum?" he boomed at the audience, before comparing their strength to the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Salmond called on Scots to "sustain the push for our country's freedom."

Salmond previously accused the leaders of the UK's three main parties of tricking Scottish voters into voting no, with promises "cooked up in desperation."

The realization of those promises — a document called the Smith Commission report that outlines the country's new powers — was released after the last tour stop, near the end of November. Dismissed already by many independence campaigners, the report promises greater Scottish control over taxes, and the ability to make discretionary payments in any area of welfare. It also extends the vote in the next election to 16- and 17-year-olds.


The politicization of Scotland is a big deal. The country has widespread inequality, perhaps most evident in Glasgow, the city with the lowest life expectancy in the UK. Men are only expected to live to age 73 and women to 78.5, several years below the UK average — and the gap is widening. With just 75 percent of boys and 85 percent of girls expected to reach their 65th birthdays, the life expectancy figure has been labeled the "Glasgow effect." Scotland is also important economically and for national defense, since the country houses the UK's Trident nuclear missile system.

Increased powers given to the country in the run-up to the referendum led to calls of unfairness from other British citizens, who will often add — given that September saw a majority of Scots reject independence in a transparent and democratic way — the country's government needs to stop complaining and simply respect the decision made by their citizens. It also remains to be seen what the effects of further devolution will be for Wales, Northern Ireland, and England.

Meanwhile, reminders of the attempted revolution will continue to crop up unexpectedly for Scots, in incarnations as varied as Bloco Yes, an independence campaign samba group; a Glaswegian drinking spot that has renamed itself "Yesbar," and — especially notable, given some the criticism from some yes campaigners of the media coverage of the referendum — a new daily pro-independence newspaper called The National.

Scotland's first minister resigns as no vote leads to hostility. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd