GLASGOW, Scotland — Liz Quinn’s longtime dream of a fully independent Scotland was shattered early Friday after Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay within the United Kingdom.
“I am deeply disappointed, but you know, we’re still standing,” said Quinn, 75, a retired school principal who has spent decades campaigning for independence. “We will not get another bite at that cherry, not in my lifetime.”
For his part, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond did not wake up on Friday morning as a prime-minister-in-waiting; instead, in a subdued speech in Edinburgh, he conceded defeat and called on all Scots to respect the results.
He then tweeted: “Let’s not dwell on the distance we’ve fallen short — let us dwell on the distance we have traveled.” Hours later, Salmond announced his resignation.
To come within touching distance of victory was deeply agonizing for nationalists who devoted their lives to a cause that was crushed overnight.
Scotland voted 55 percent to 45 percent in a referendum Thursday to remain part of the United Kingdom. The results were announced early Friday. Polls had shown the vote much closer in the last few weeks.
Glasgow is Scotland’s biggest city, and it voted “yes” to independence. The city center was pulsing with rock music and blasting car horns throughout the night — until shortly before it became clear that the “no” camp would win.
For Quinn, her campaigning journey began three decades ago. She was not particularly political at the time but was involved in the women’s movement in Scotland and “learned about the importance of self-determination,” she said. “And then the idea struck me: If you’re looking for that on a personal level, why not look for it in your country, too?” And so she joined the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Quinn’s first SNP conference was the one in which Salmond was kicked out. It was the early 1980s, and Salmond was part of the 79 Group, a faction within the SNP that was banned for its left-leaning ideas. But the party recognized his talent and brought him back into the fold, where he quickly climbed the ranks.
The SNP was launched in 1934, but it was not until the 1970s when it began to look like a serious player, prying votes away from the left-leaning Labor Party and winning seats in general elections. When giant oil fields were discovered off the coast of Scotland, the party’s appeal was bolstered. Its rallying call became “It’s Scotland’s oil,” and the party argued that the riches from North Sea oil could help fund a more just and prosperous society.
When Salmond became leader of the SNP in 1990, he boosted confidence that Scotland could afford to go it alone. A trained economist, Salmond could talk the language of business and made the idea seem less of a romantic gamble. The party flourished under his helm.
“He has been central to the whole project of independence, strategically, presentationally, and in terms of making it credible,” said David Torrance, author of several books on Scottish politics. “He’s not an ideologue; his guiding philosophy is: ‘Whatever works.’ ”
Scottish independence began to feel like a real prospect in 2007 when Salmond’s SNP won enough seats to form a minority government in the devolved Scottish Parliament. In 2011, the SNP defied expectations by winning a majority of seats, and Salmond soon launched a bid for independence.
“That’s when we all cheered; that’s when it began to look real,” Quinn said. Before 2007, she said, the idea of an independent Scotland “had great appeal for me, and I wanted to put my energy there, but it looked like a lost cause.”
An elegant woman with an infectious smile, Quinn spent much of this past year pounding the gritty streets of Glasgow, targeting any house or apartment that had no steps (the years have not been kind to her knees). She saw a nationalist surge etched on the faces of ordinary Glaswegians long before the shocking poll two weeks ago that put the “yes” camp in the lead for the first time.
Quinn said she thinks Salmond is a “tremendous politician and a real statesman,” but she also stressed that over the course of this campaign, the driving force for independence has come not from party politicians, but from young, informed Scots who now have an appetite for separation.
Because Salmond has said there will not be another referendum for a generation, the fight for independence may indeed quiet down.
But Quinn still thinks her dream has been postponed, rather than completely lost.
“Young people are educated now; all the apathy is gone,” she said. “This is not the end.”