By ALAN COWELL, EDINBURGH (NY Times): After a passionate campaign that spanned two years of mounting intensity but reached back into centuries of history, Scottish voters headed for the polling booths on Thursday to choose whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to secede and become an independent nation.
If the “yes” campaign seeking independence for Scotland secures a majority, the outcome will herald the most dramatic constitutional change in the relationship between the two countries since they united in 1707. The repercussions would be enormous, creating the world’s newest state and ending a union that once oversaw an empire and triumphed in two world wars.
If “no” voters prevail, the outcome will leave Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, facing challenges from his own Conservative Party over promises of greater autonomy for Scotland that he offered in an effort to head off the pro-independence campaign led by the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond.
Almost 4.3 million people — 97 percent of the electorate — have registered to vote, including 16- and-17-year-olds enfranchised for the first time. Analysts have forecast a record turnout in excess of 80 percent at about 2,600 polling places stretching from urban centers to remote and sparsely populated islands. Voting began at 7 a.m. local time, and the polling stations are set to close at 10 p.m. A steady stream of voters headed for polling stations here under murky skies.
A full result is expected by breakfast time on Friday, when Scots will learn whether their land is to embark on a dramatic new chapter. The English — who form the overwhelming majority of the 60-million-plus population of the United Kingdom — have no vote in the referendum, whose result could send political and economic shock waves across the nation, which also includes Wales and Northern Ireland.
Opinion surveys before the vote left the result on a knife’s edge, too close to call. Despite the intensity of the debate, some key issues remain unresolved, such as the currency to be used by an independent Scotland if there is a “yes” vote.
Equally, Scottish secession could raise profound questions over Mr. Cameron’s political future. Mr. Salmond, Scotland’s highest-ranking official, has indicated that he will not step down if his side loses the referendum. One big issue if the “yes” campaign wins is the future of British nuclear submarines based in Scotland, which Mr. Salmond’s Scottish National Party wants to evict.
The question on the ballot paper is brief and simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” But the ramifications of a “yes” vote in particular are potentially far-reaching, raising questions about the international roles to be played by a diminished Britain and a newly-independent Scotland.
The impetus for a referendum began when Mr. Salmond’s party — once on the political fringes with little notice from the public — won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, leading to negotiations with Mr. Cameron in 2012 that led to the referendum taking place on Thursday. Initially, the British leader seemed confident of victory but as the vote approached, the gap narrowed.
The two sides have sought to enlist the support of celebrities to back their rival causes. The newest apparent social media coup came in the the early hours of Thursday when a Twitter post attributed to the Scottish-born tennis star Andy Murray castigated the “no” campaign. “Huge day for Scotland today! no campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. excited to see the outcome. lets do this!” the message read.
Mr. Murray, 27, is not a Scottish resident and therefore cannot participate directly in the referendum.
As the ballot approached, both camps scrambled to lure hundreds of thousands of undecided voters whose ballots could swing the outcome either way.
At a rally in Perth late on Wednesday, Mr. Salmond told his followers that the vote is “our opportunity of a lifetime and we must seize it with both hands.”
“There are men and women all over Scotland looking in the mirror knowing that the moment has come. It’s our choice and our opportunity and our time,” he said, reflecting the upbeat and optimistic tone that the”yes” campaign has sought to project, countering the “no” campaign’s warnings of the dire economic and social consequences of independence.
In his own final public word on the vote, Gordon Brown, a former prime minister from the opposition Labour Party who has emerged as a leading spokesman of the anti-independence campaign, said in Glasgow on Wednesday that “the silent majority will be silent no more.”
“We will build the future together,” he said. “What we have built together, by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever.”
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