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Scotland vote is a big win for democracy

Alex Salmond’s 20-year career as head of the Scottish National Park ended with Thursday’s vote.
Alex Salmond’s 20-year career as head of the Scottish National Park ended with Thursday’s vote.(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The democratic winds that swept through Scotland on Thursday snuffed out the hopes of more than a million Scottish voters and their dream of independence from the United Kingdom. But it also brought out a still greater number of Scots who, after careful consideration during a spirited campaign, concluded that their sometimes awkward union with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland still held notable advantages over going it alone.

In fact, the outcome — 55 percent of voters rejected the notion of breaking away — reflected a number of pragmatic judgments: A centuries-old marriage inevitably involves some give and take — and shouldn’t be broken up rashly. In a globalized world, policy disagreements with London needn’t be treated as all-consuming. And the existing system, warts and all, has yielded benefits to Scotland and the international community.

It’s no wonder both President Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton opposed the independence effort. A United Kingdom that includes Scotland has long been a friend and close diplomatic ally to the United States, in war and peace. Indeed, Obama sent out a tweet of support for a “no,” extolling the US-British partnership as a “force for good in an unstable world.”

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Regardless of the outcome, the vote in Scotland was also a moment to rejoice for anyone who believes in the enduring power of democracy. Though England had everything to lose, Prime Minister David Cameron and his government allowed the referendum to go forward.

In the end, the vote had one immediate political consequence: It ended Alex Salmond’s 20-year career as leader of the Scottish National Party, and his tenure as first minister of Scotland. Yet this too showed the world that peaceful transition, fomented at the polls and not in the streets, is not only possible, but urgently matters in the context of 21st century geopolitics. “Scotland voters showed the world,” noted Nicholas Burns, a regular Globe contributor and former undersecretary of state, “that this is how you resolve big, internal problems in a country, through civil discourse, a transparent process, and a free and fair vote.” Striking a similar note was Queen Elizabeth herself: “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.”

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After the drama and heady rhetoric of elections comes the prosaic business of governing, and hard questions remain for Cameron. Young Scots flooded Twitter with talk of political and economic disenfranchisement, providing a glimpse of a generational divide that could have lasting impact, and even prompt another independence campaign in the future. Indeed, the failure of past secession votes in other jurisdictions around the world — most notably in Quebec — inspired some separatists to press still harder, at least for a time.

Yet in hindsight, the results in Scotland suggest that one way to quell separatist sentiment is to give a full public airing to it — and to the underlying disagreements that often motivate it. In this way, the referendum offered the sharpest possible contrast with countries where political differences are settled by violence. The Scottish fight between competing ideals — and the passion of an electorate that turned out in droves — caught the world’s attention, and is cause to celebrate.