Scottish Voters Cast Ballots On Whether To Cut Ties To U.K.

Sep 18, 2014
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By this time tomorrow, we should know whether Scotland will become an independent country. Scots are now casting their votes on whether to end the union between Scotland and England, a marriage that has lasted for centuries. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this look back at how the U.K. reached this precipice.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Tensions between England and Scotland stretch back for centuries, but in 1707 the two kingdoms signed a document called The Acts of Union. And the two kingdoms became one. In present-day Glasgow, a salesman named Roger McKinnon sneers at that deal from three centuries ago as though it happened yesterday.

ROGER MCKINNON: I mean, they sold their independence in 1707. But that wasn't the people that sold it. That was the landed gentry that sold independence.

SHAPIRO: Even after the two countries joined hands, the tensions never fully disappeared. Scots bristled that conservative U.K. governments in Westminster didn't present their interests. Scotland kept trying to get more autonomy with mixed success. In the late 1990s, Scotland finally won the right to open its own parliament. Winnie Ewing stood in the hall in 1999 and said she had waited her entire life to speak these words.

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WINNIE EWING: The Scottish Parliament adjourned on the 25 day of March in the year 1707 is hereby reconvened.

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SHAPIRO: Through all this, a political party called the SNP carried the independence banner - the Scottish National Party. For decades, the SNP was a fringe movement. Then 2011 brought a shock. The SNP won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament and a man named Alex Salmond became Scotland's first minister.

FIRST MINISTER ALEX SALMOND: We have given ourselves the permission to be bold.

SHAPIRO: That year Scottish voters were angry at London for all sorts of reasons - scandals, austerity, even the Iraq War. Ewen Cameron is a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh.

EWEN CAMERON: All these things I think gave Scottish voters a sense that this was an opportunity to give the Westminster political parties, indeed the Westminster political system, a bit of a kicking. And the SNP was the vehicle for that.

SHAPIRO: And is giving the Westminster political system a kicking synonymous with having an independence referendum?

CAMERON: I think that was a byproduct. Of course it was embedded. That's what the SNP is about. Their ultimate objective is independence.

SHAPIRO: True to its mission, the SNP pressed on, and London gave in. Here's how the British people heard the news from the BBC in October of 2012.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A deal setting out the terms for a referendum on Scottish independence has been signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

SHAPIRO: At the time, secession still seemed like a fantasy. No poll in the history of Scotland had ever shown independence in the lead. But as a warning, leaders from England told Scots that if they broke away, there would be consequences, such as losing the pound. Chancellor George Osborne is the British equivalent of the treasury secretary.

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CHANCELLOR GEORGE OSBORNE: The pound isn't an asset to be divided up between two countries after a breakup as if it were a CD collection.

SHAPIRO: Prime Minister David Cameron gave similar warnings. Here he was just this week.

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PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: The nationalists want to break up U.K. funding on pensions, the U.K. funding on health care, the U.K. funding and comprehensive protection on national security.

SHAPIRO: The historian, Ewen Cameron, says this played right into the nationalist's narrative.

CAMERON: And that really seemed to Scottish electors that these were once again the Westminster parties colluding to try and dictate the terms of the discussion.

SHAPIRO: Then came a televised debate, where Alistair Darling of The Unity Campaign seemed to be scolding Alex Salmond.

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ALISTAIR DARLING: Don't you lecture me on that.

SALMOND: Well, I'm telling you...

DARLING: In the 13 years I was in government, I was part of a government...

SHAPIRO: In the span of a month, unity's comfortable 20-point lead vanished. Less than two weeks before the vote, a poll showed independence ahead for the first time ever. Prime Minister Cameron scrambled to promise Scotland more autonomy if it stays in the union. As he put it on Monday...

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CAMERON: A no vote actually means faster, fairer, safer and better change.

SHAPIRO: It's not an obvious argument, but it shows just how far the Scottish independence movement has come, no matter the outcome of today's vote. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Edinburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.