|People casting their votes at a polling station in Edinburgh on Thursday morning.|
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 momentous, creating the world’s newest state and ending a union that once oversaw an empire and triumphed in two world wars.
In Edinburgh, a steady stream of early voters filed into polling stations under murky skies and fog that swathed the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. Others said they would vote later in the day, after working hours. Electoral officials have said they are expecting record numbers.
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.
|Alex Salmond, the leader of the independence movement, entered a polling station in Strichen, Scotland, to cast his vote in the referendum on Thursday.|
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 huge turnout in excess of 80 percent at about 2,600 polling places stretching from urban centers to remote and sparsely populated islands and far-flung settlements in the Scottish Highlands. Voting began at 7 a.m. and the polling stations are set to close at 10 p.m.
A full result is expected by breakfast time on Friday, when Scots will learn whether their land is to embark on a dramatic new era of restored sovereignty that, only a matter of years ago, seemed unlikely. 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.
|A supporter of the "Yes" campaign outside a polling station in Strichen, Scotland, on Thursday.|
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. Opinion is closely divided and deeply felt.
Brian Cox, a Dundee-born actor who now lives in New York and cannot vote, returned to campaign for independence. He was impressed by the exercise of democracy here.
“This is democracy at work as you rarely see it,” he said. “No or yes, people are going out to vote for something they deeply believe in.” He stopped, then said, “It’s moving.”
The impetus for a referendum began when Mr. Salmond’s party — once on the political fringes with little electoral power — won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, leading to negotiations with Mr. Cameron in 2012. Those talks set the date and terms of the referendum taking place on Thursday. Initially, the British leader seemed confident of victory, with opinion surveys showing Scots overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom. But as the vote approached, the gap narrowed to the smallest of margins.
|A young voter leaves a polling station in Edinburgh on Thursday. Analysts have forecast a record turnout in excess of 80 percent at about 2,600 polling places.|
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 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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