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A Scotland made anew by surge in political engagement

Democracy won; now Scots will have to try to translate it into meaningful improvement in people's lives

On the cobbled streets of Edinburgh on Saturday, the "yes" and "no" campaign offices were dark, the doors locked, the insides strewn with deflated balloons and abandoned leaflets — the frozen-in-amber detritus of a once-vibrant struggle now past its climax.

But across town, at the offices of the Scottish Youth Parliament, the buzz was just beginning.

Young Scots devoted a fine weekend afternoon to drafting speeches, scribbling ideas and talking about their plans for a country that won't be independent but that in many ways has been made anew by an extraordinary surge in political engagement.

"Politics in this country had the stereotype of being all about middle-aged men in suits. It wasn't popular," said Louise Cameron, the 18-year-old chair of the 150-member Youth Parliament, a body of 14- to 25-year-olds who advocate for Scotland's young people. "But the triumph of this referendum is that it's put politics back into people's lives. At the end of the day, democracy won."

Now Scots will have to try to build on that success and perform the far less glamorous work of translating it into meaningful improvement in people's lives. Although 55 percent of the population voted to stick with the United Kingdom rather than go it alone, the result was hardly an endorsement of the status quo, with surveys showing widespread dissatisfaction with the way Scotland is governed.

Such disillusionment often leads to apathy, but the independence debate was electrifying. Some 85 percent of eligible Scots — a group that included 16- and 17-year-olds — voted in Thursday's referendum, an extraordinary turnout at a time when political participation has been declining across Britain.

The two-year debate provoked passion and occasional accusations of bullying by both sides. But it was remarkably peaceful for a campaign with such far-reaching stakes.

The aftermath has been similarly civil. Victorious unionists have largely refrained from any conspicuous gloating. Defeated nationalists have accepted a result that brought them within striking distance of independence but left them instead to ponder the revolution that never was.

"We are all absolutely devastated. But it's not by any means over," said John Stewart, the 63-year-old owner of an IT company who devoted long days and sleepless nights to campaigning for independence. "Nobody is looking at this as the end, just the beginning of a different phase."

The new phase is one in which Scots will be challenged to sustain their interest. After two years of fevered debate over a binary choice of national identity -- Scotland or the U.K. -- the playing field now moves back to the realm of more conventional politics, where the issues are muddled and less accessible.

Lawmakers in Edinburgh and London must decide how much power to shift away from the central government and toward regional authorities. It's a process that will involve compromise and behind-the-scenes horse-trading over relatively arcane issues of taxes and spending. In other words: politics.

"People feel inspired and want to participate more," said Christopher Carman, who teaches political science at the University of Glasgow. "But when people watch the process of politics in action, they don't like what they see."

On the streets of Glasgow on Saturday, there were signs that life was already moving on. Buchanan Street shoppers darted in and out of stores, with some stopping to look at buskers, like the young boy playing bagpipes or the violinist attempting to walk a tightrope.

Kristen Norquoy, 40, a postal worker from the isles of Orkney, said the country had been transfixed by the vote. "This was the chance to vote and be heard," she said.

But it is difficult to know, she said, whether Scots will remain plugged in politically "or if we become jaded like before. If things don't change, folks will just get fed up."

Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, was on edge for several hours Friday night when hundreds of rival "yes" and "no" demonstrators scuffled in downtown's George Square. Police, some on horseback, dispersed the flag-waving crowd, and six people were arrested.

Friday night's clashes were not all that different from the ones that occasionally break out between fans of rival soccer clubs, and they were the only serious disturbances reported in a nation of 5.3 million that covers a third of Britain's landmass.

Far more reflective of the post-referendum mood was a Facebook page urging Scots who had voted "yes" to hug someone who voted "no," and vice versa. "Scotland is beautiful and hugs are great!" the page proclaims.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, while not quite as touchy-feely, had a similar message in a stem-winder of a speech Saturday morning in which he urged Scots to throw away their "yes" and "no" posters and "move from the battleground to the common ground."

Brown's own passion for politics seems to have been reignited by the referendum, and he was widely credited with helping to save the union with a series of speeches advocating a "no" vote in the campaign's final days. On Saturday, he said Scotland's surge in political involvement reflected common interests in social justice.

"It's not simply about a desire to vote and participate. It is about a deep-seated desire for social change in this country," said Brown, who spoke at length and without notes while pacing the floor of an auditorium in his native Fife. "The independence we want is from the deprivation of millions of people and the inequalities they face."

The "yes" campaign had argued for months that the only way to address those issues was to cut the cord between Scotland and London, where the central government is led by an austerity-minded Conservative Party that is reviled among left-leaning Scots.

But with polls tightening in the campaign's final days, Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders of Britain's two other main parties promised to transfer vast powers from London to Edinburgh. Brown said Saturday that he would hold them to that pledge and make sure that Thursday's vote isn't interpreted as permission to keep the system the way it is.

For Beth Brawley, a 17-year-old high school student who said she's been obsessed with politics for the past two years, the message is that sometimes, democracy actually works.

"You can think, 'Oh, we don't vote for the government we get,' " she said. "Well, your voice does matter. That's what we have learned. You can change things if you work hard enough."

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