On Wednesday lunchtime, a bagpiper heralded the arrival of Gordon Brown at a community hall in Glasgow. Once the music faded out, the former prime minister launched into a speech that has already been hailed by some as the oration that saved the union. Amid a cheering crowd waving ‘no thanks’ placards Brown, with a fiery intensity often missing in office, called on supporters “to stand up and be counted”.
The following day, Scots did just that, voting stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55 to 45 on a record high turnout of over 84 per cent.
Historians might credit Gordon Brown’s late intervention with swinging the vote back to the unionist side, but throughout Scotland’s two-year long campaign nationalists consistently failed to convince Scots that they would be better off in an independent state. What the yes side did do – in towns and villages across the land, often using social media – was persuade thousands of political neophytes and old stagers to become actively involved in probably the biggest grassroots political campaign Scotland has ever seen.
On Wednesday, as the crowd was on its feet applauding Gordon Brown in Glasgow, councillor Willie Clarke and Michael Payne sat chatting about the referendum vote in the backroom of the Benarty community centre, fifty miles, away in the former Labour leader’s Fife constituency. Both men had spent the past six months campaigning for a ‘yes’. Almost every week hundreds of locals – some who had not voted for years – packed into the centre in this small, former mining village to hear visiting speakers and participate in debates.
“I’ve not seen anything like this in terms of public meetings. The last time I saw this community galvanized like this was the miner’s strike,’ said Payne, the community centre’s manager. The 1984 miners strike – and its defeat – cast a dark shadow across Benarty. Unemployment is high and jobs are scare for those living in Benarty’s rows of pebble-dashed terrace houses set on an escarpment below low, tree-topped hills. “The solidarity is still there. It died a bit after the miner’s strike but it’s back now,” said Payne.
Scotland’s referendum was a direct result of the Scottish National Party winning a majority in elections to the devolved parliament in 2011. But the roots of the disquiet that led almost half of Scots to vote to leave the 307-year-old union with England are etched in the landscape in places like Benarty. Deindustrialization has left this once self-sufficient community reliant on welfare and public sector jobs. Politics has changed, too. Labour no longer enjoys a monopoly on power in the old pit towns; Scottish nationalists, and the very idea of independence, has caught the imagination of a long-neglected population.
As everywhere else in Scotland, the pro-independence side was by far the most visible in Benarty on the eve of the referendum. Saltires hung in the breeze out of second floor windows. In the car park, half a dozen vehicles sported blue ‘yes’ stickers on their windows. There was just a solidary ‘save the union’ badge.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re going back to the 40 and 50s for a campaign like this,’ said councillor Willie Clarke. When we last met in the spring, Willie Clarke seemed friendly but tired. On Wednesday, he was ebullient, taking at length about the campaign – and its aftermath. “I’m very encouraged by what’s happening,’ he said as we drove through the former mining towns of central Fife. Shops were boarded up. “I believe that Scotland will be an independent nation, if it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it but it’ll happen.”
That evening, just twelve hours before polls opened, several thousand independence supporters filled Glasgow’s George Square, transforming this normally rather staid collection of statues and grey asphalt into a carnival. A middle-aged woman meandered slowly through the crowd with a sign that read, ‘Scotland don’t be scared’. Hipsters walked across the square with ‘yes’ stickers in their beards, a young couple wearing matching ‘Ja’ badges pushed a pram. Conga lines started up; people chanted ‘Scotland’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’. At one end of the square, political speeches gave way to rave music in the gloaming. Near the city chambers, rows of uniformed police separated a small group of far-right protesters waving Union flags from the much larger mass of yes supporters.
Few were talking about the referendum itself. Those that were thought the latest polls – showing a four-point lead for the no campaign – had underestimated the size of the yes vote. ‘We can win this,’ said a topless busker in a kilt.
Scotland’s yes campaign was often characterised by an optimism that bordered on blind faith. Many supporters were drawn less to a Braveheart vision of Scottish nationhood, and more to a belief that the political system in London was beyond reform. The 20-somethings clambering on the George Square statues, chanting ‘yes, yes, yes’, on Wednesday looked like protestors in Puerta de Sol in Madrid or Istanbul’s Gezi Park – with added Saltires and Scotland football tops.
“I’m absolutely disgusted by Westminster. Not by the UK, not by England, I’m disgusted by Westminster,’ said June Dickson, 50, from Livingston in central Scotland. A Scottish flag by her side, Dickson complained about the expenses scandals and the war in Iraq. (Iraq was a turning point in modern Scottish political history: just over a decade ago, over 50,000 people marched in Glasgow against the war. Alex Salmond rarely failed to mention the Scottish National Party’s opposition to the invasion – or Labour’s support of it).
Ms Dickson’s brother, Lawrence, was killed by the IRA in sniper in south Armagh in 1993. “My brother fought and died to protect his people, the people of the UK, a UK he thought was an equal, just country. I don’t see how anyone can look at the UK now and say it’s any of those things,” she said, holding back tears.
Irish-born SNP Glasgow councillor Feargal Dalton stood under a plinth in the middle of George Square waiting for his teenage son to emerge from a sea of blue and white Saltires, peppered with Basque, Catalan and even Serbian flags. Nearby people posed for photos beside a life-size Loch Ness monster cuddly toy. “I’m nervous,” Dalton admitted.
He was right to be. That the George Square party was more wake than celebration would only become clear in the small hours of Friday morning – as the results began to pour in from across Scotland – but even on Thursday morning, as polls opened, there were signs that the visibility was not the same as support for the yes campaign.
In Easterhouse, a sprawling 1960s—era housing estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, yes placards hung from almost every lamppost and seemed to occupy every second living room window. But most of the people trickling in and out of the St Rose of Lima primary school seemed, quietly, to be voting for the union.
“I think we’re better together,” said Marie Doherty, a local mother. She was worried about the prospects for North Sea oil and the economic stability of an independent Scotland. “My husband has voted no, too,” she said.
Easterhouse is Scotland’s political apathy capital: less than 35 per cent here voted in the 2011 Holyrood elections. The yes campaign hoped to win the day by coaxing the apathetic out of their stupor with promises that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’. But for some the no campaign’s negative messages – warning of the dangers of independence – won the day. “I don’t normally vote at all but I was worried about this so I came out to vote no,” said one local woman.
On Thursday, Easterhouse, like the rest of Scotland, was a story of quiet nos, and loud yeses. Just after lunch, a cavalcade of mothers pushing prams turned up the path to the polling station. In unison they sang “Flower of Scotland”. They wore ‘yes’ t-shirts and badges, and waved flags as small children ran among their buggies.
“These past few weeks I think Scotland’s found a voice. We know now that we don’t have to settle for what the government give us,” said Tracy, a mother who had organsied the group to come en masse to vote.
“I want to have a better future for my kids, for my grandkids,’ she said. “Scotland is going to be very different tomorrow either way. If it’s a no vote it gives these kids the chance to say “we can do it”. If we don’t do it they will.’
As Thursday night slipped into Friday morning, even the most ardent independence supporters were forced to admit defeat. No scored victories in all but four of Scotland’s more more than 30 electoral areas. (Glasgow, however, did vote for independence). On Friday morning, a dozen or so independence supporters sat drinking beer and waving their flags in an empty George Square. “I’m devastated,” said one teenager, in between sips of Tennent’s. The mood was one of quiet despondency, not riotous anger.
The question now is where Scotland, and its newly mobilized generation, goes from here. It is too early to tell if Westminster can offer a devolution settlement to satisfy Scotland’s growing sense of self-determination. If it can’t, the Scots may be on the streets again, and next time rousing cries to ‘stand up and be counted’ might not be enough to save the union.
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 21/09/2014.