GLASGOW, Scotland — As Scots headed to the polls Thursday to decide on splitting from the United Kingdom, analysts said that British politics will never be the same, regardless of the vote’s too-close-to-call outcome.
With initial results expected early Friday, Scotland’s independence referendum already has succeeded in ensuring that the political union that is the U.K. no longer will be taken for granted, analysts said.
“Whichever the outcome, the Scottish referendum marks the beginning of a new constitutional settlement in the British Isles,” said Myrto Tsakatika, a political science professor at the University of Glasgow.
That’s because the debate over decentralizing power away from London to the U.K.’s regions has found traction outside of Scotland, with calls in England and Wales for more local power.
Should Scotland choose to end its 307-year-old union with Great Britain, it faces the advantages and challenges that sovereignty brings. If it opts to stay with the U.K., Scots would enjoy more political and economic autonomy, as promised by British leaders in recent days.
In Glasgow, bagpipers played loudly among crowds of hundreds of Scots Thursday, as municipal crews erected fencing around monuments in anticipation of revelry or riots when the results become known.
Standing in Glasgow’s George Square, Robert Godfrey, 46, and his 12-year-old daughter wore blue-and-white “Yes” stickers on their lapels. He said he thinks an independent Scotland would be a better place for his family.
“I’ve got no concerns that we’re quite capable as a country to stand on our two feet,” Mr. Godfrey said, dismissing skeptics from the “No” campaign as trying to frighten voters from supporting secession. “The majority was scaremongering stories. It’s all been proven to be lies.”
Army veteran Allan Gibb, 60, says questions about defense and economics put him firmly in the “No” camp.
“I don’t think it’s the time,” Mr. Gibb said. “The world’s been the most uncertain since the Second World War.”
Polls suggest the result was too close to call, The Associated Press reported. A final Ipsos MORI poll released Thursday put support for the “No” side at 53 percent and “Yes” at 47 percent. The phone survey of 991 people has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Polling stations were busy, and turnout was expected to be high, with more than 4.2 million people registered to vote — 97 percent of those eligible. Residents as young as 16 can vote.
Until recently, polls suggested as many as one in five voters was undecided, but that number has shrunk dramatically. In the latest poll, only 4 percent remained uncertain how they would vote.
In recent weeks there has been great debate over Scotland’s viability as an independent state. The fate of the U.K.’s nuclear arsenal also has been called into question, as Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines and warheads are based at Faslane near Glasgow.
But the Scottish National Party (SNP), which currently rules the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, says the nuclear weapons need to be removed from Scottish soil by 2020 at the latest.
“Across the population as a whole, there’s no real appetite to have nuclear weapons in Scotland,” said defense analyst Stuart Crawford, a retired lieutenant colonel in the British army. “So that is why it’s become — for many people — a red-line issue.”
Already there has been talk in the British and American defense communities about finding a new home for the Trident submarines and their warheads because of the growing opposition from Edinburgh to positioning nuclear warheads in Scotland.
Mr. Crawford says that domestic politics in the U.K. could have far-reaching ramifications to the defense posture of NATO.
“By insisting on the removal of Trident [submarines based] on independence, the SNP government — should it be an SNP government — is actually demanding the unilateral disarmament of the U.K., which has important ramifications for NATO, the rest of the U.K. and the United States of America,” he said.
Economics are also a bone of contention. Scotland has proven reserves of oil and gas along the North Sea shelf. But many “No” voters have questioned the uncertainty of Scotland — with a population of 5.3 million people — deciding to break away from London.
On Buchanan Street, one of Glasgow’s busiest shopping thoroughfares, the fate of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom brought some from far afield to campaign.
Anthony Webber, a 62-year-old former politician from the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, handed out “No” stickers and buttons. He said he made the trip over water and overland because he was alarmed by the fate of the U.K.
“We will be affected if the U.K. breaks up,” Mr. Webber said. “We’re concerned about there being a weaker United Kingdom economically and politically, which will affect the whole British family of nations. This is why some people have come up to support the ‘No’ campaign.”
Economists have warned there are inherent dangers of Scotland breaking away. The ruling Scottish National Party has pledged to keep the British pound as the currency, though leaders in London have rejected any talk of a currency union.
But whatever the arrangement turns out to be, economist Fabian Zuleeg of the Brussels-based European Policy Center says Scotland has the resources to carve out its niche in the world economy provided its leadership makes sound decisions.
“There is nothing in the resources that Scotland has, [that] the people of Scotland [have], the level of economic development it has reached, which would suggest it couldn’t be a viable country,” Mr. Zuleeg said. “So I don’t see that it wouldn’t be viable.”
Scotland’s future in the European Union also has been thrown into question. Spain, currently dealing with the restive region of Catalonia, which is determined to hold its own independence referendum in November, has pledged to veto Scotland’s reentry into the European Union.
But Mr. Zuleeg predicts other European nations will overrule Madrid, especially given Scotland’s proven energy resources.
“I cannot see that a country which wants to be in the European Union, which is in Europe, which fulfills the conditions, which is democratic, could be denied EU membership indefinitely,” Mr. Zuleeg said.
The U.K.’s position in the European community also has been an issue that’s weaved a vein through the debate. Rising “euroskepticism” in Britain — especially England — has given rise to the United Kingdom Independence Party, which seeks a referendum over pulling the U.K. out of the European Union.
That’s been anathema to many Scots, who see their future in a well-ordered, integrated EU common market that Mr. Zuleeg argues has pulled many over to support secession.
“I think there a number of people in Scotland who are concerned that the U.K. might at some point leave the EU,” Mr. Zuleeg said. “And that in itself does actually encourage some voters to switch to ‘Yes’ votes in the referendum.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.