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.
If the “yes” campaign seeking independence for Scotland secures a majority, it will herald the most dramatic constitutional change in Britain since the two countries 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.
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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 made 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 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 were 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 polls before the vote left the result on a knife 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.