Two weeks on. This may be the last post I make for a while. I cannot say how long it will be until I return: I still need a few days to collect myself after all that’s happened over the past two years of my life. It’s been the proverbial roller-coaster of ups and downs. I think I’ll be taking a break from life in general. Read some books. Draw. Finish Bannockburn – lord knows if anything needs finished, it’s that. Play video games. I can’t remember the last time I played Skyrim.
But before I leave, I would like to impart my experiences of the 18th and the early hours of the 19th of September, 2014, as I saw them.
I woke up after a few hours of sleep. I put on my best linen suit, the one I wear every year to Cross Plains in Texas. I wash and shower, have breakfast, phone and message my friends in the campaign. I place my Yes rosette proudly over my heart, and affix the badge identifying me as a Wings Over Scotland Polling Agent on the other side. I have a long day ahead of me.
I turn up at St. Ninian’s Primary School in Gourock, where I expected to stand for the next 15 hours, to meet and greet voters. My “No Thanks” counterpart was not yet present. I inspected the ballot boxes, confident that they were sound, and greeted the count inspector and other agents. I was told all I’ve been told a hundred times before (no leaflets, no “electioneering,” etc) just to make sure it was present in my mind. I steeled myself for the next 24 hours, for I did not expect to get much rest.
The polling station opens. I was heartened to see there was already a queue outside: only a dozen or so, but nonetheless I was overjoyed to see people eager to vote in the most important decision they’ve ever been asked to make. I found my “No Thanks” counterpart outside… with a pile of cards in his hands. They were effectively reproductions of the ballot paper in postcard size, but with the No box already crossed, and a big arrow pointing at it, with the despicable appeal to ignorance “if you don’t know, vote no” emblazoned upon it. He had the same badge as I did, and was indeed a polling agent. After a quick phone call to Yes Inverclyde HQ for advice I walked up to him and firmly but politely told him that handing out campaign literature was not allowed at polling stations. He accepted, with a wry “you’re an expert then, are you?” to which I replied that I was only doing what the impartial inspector made clear to me.
This polling agent (I’m going to offer a final consideration for their privacy and redact names) was a friend of the family. I knew him vaguely, little more than he was a pensioner who was involved in some of the local community endeavours. Most of the “No Thanks” campaigners I met today were pensioners. He had no idea what Wings Over Scotland was. Of course he didn’t.
Time for the count. I remember to remove my Yes rosette before entering the polling premises, and am pleasantly surprised by the result. I expected peaks and troughs in the turnout, but even this early bird influx was promising, if only for the overall turnout. I go out to rejoin my colleague, who – to his credit – didn’t appear to have handed out any more leaflets.
My polling counterpart has a friend. Again, I’m going to take the high road and protect his identity, much as he doesn’t deserve the generosity. One of the running themes of the day is this: whenever it was just me and the No agent, a genial silence reigned save for smatterings of “good morning/afternoon/evening” and “cheerio/bye/thanks for voting.” But whenever more than one of either side was present, you couldn’t shut them up.
Listening to the No’s conversation was enlightening. One can hardly call it eavesdropping when the two talkers are speaking at such a volume you could hear what they’re saying from inside the house across the road. And even though I have certain difficulties “reading” people, there was no mistaking the intent of the conversation: baiting. All the two of them seemed to talk about was how terrible the Nats are, how they keep breaking the rules, how they’re destroying the country, ripping families apart with their division – you know the drill. They were doing everything they could to get a rise out of me – yet bizarrely, the sheer brazen lack of respect they afforded me had the opposite approach. It was so preposterous that I couldn’t be angry, so confident and assured of my position that I couldn’t be provoked, so passionate about Yes being a victory for all Scots that I couldn’t bring myself to hate them at that moment. I’m very glad of it, for it gave me the strength to carry on.
Of more campaign-oriented interest was the complete lack of organisation they seemed to have. They didn’t know what was going on, who was where, they couldn’t get in touch with someone (presumably the coordinator). No Inverclyde had so little local support that they had to twin with No Paisley for the shop. Yes Inverclyde had a shop, No didn’t. What does that tell you?
Councillor Chris McIleny came by with slice rolls. I had generously offered my No counterparts one if they wanted, but they politely declined. As the day wore on I started to feel all my politeness and generosity was simply being rewarded with more baiting and disrespect, to the point where it seemed almost insulting to the Yes campaign to grant them such respect. But that’s just the kind of guy I am, and I suspect more than a few other Yes campaigners.
The No agent now has three friends. All pensioners, all men, all upper-middle class. They’ve formed a circle, and the volume of their baiting has only increased. Luckily, so has my own strength, in the knowledge that this is all they have. All they have is ranting about Alex Salmond and Separatists and World Wars. It got to the point where they were so engrossed in their own bile that they forgot they were supposed to be welcoming voters, and dozens walked by. I, mindful of my duty, said my hellos to each one, even if they did not respond.
A taxi pulled up then. An elderly, frail old lady was in the front seat. She opened the door with some difficulty. The driver was staying put. The lady couldn’t get out. The four Nos were still ranting. I did what I am certain any compassionate human being would have done: I went to the woman and offered my assistance. I held her arm as she walked to the stairs. Only then did the four Nos suddenly notice this voter. Only then, as we approached the stairs, did they offer any assistance. We took an arm each, and led her to the door.
This encapsulated the entire campaign for independence for me: the Nos were so wrapped up in their little echo chamber of hate and fear that they didn’t even notice when a vulnerable person needed help – even if they were voting for their cause – it’s only when a Nat did it that they decided to show a bit of compassion. I didn’t do anything spectacular or remarkable – I only did what I imagine anyone with even a tiny piece of humanity would do in the circumstances. I am certain that every polling station across the country has a story like this.
Another thing I noticed from St. Ninians: as a general rule, when voters wanted to leave their dogs outside, they left them with the Nos. When they wanted to leave their children and families outside, they left them with me. What does that tell you?
I’ve been seeing a fair few familiar faces so far, mostly teachers, family, friends. A certain pattern was emerging from the voters as they came in. There were roughly two types of voters: those who responded to only one of the polling agents, and those who responded to both. Of those who responded to only one, the vast majority of them only responded to the No polling agent. And of them, only a select few even gave me the courtesy of a glance. Most of them wouldn’t – or couldn’t – even look me in the eye.
It would be foolish of me to make suppositions about their voting intentions based on their interaction with the polling agents, but I feel comfortable in saying that roughly 75% of the people I personally knew were voting Yes responded with a smile and a “good morning” to both campaigners. 75% of the people I personally knew were voting No could not even look me in the eye. Do you have so little courage in your convictions that you cannot meet your political opponent eye-to-eye? Or do you just have so little regard for me as a human being that you won’t even acknowledge my presence? Do you have so much hate in your heart for the Nats that you forget our common humanity? Or are you simply ashamed of yourselves, knowing that you were choosing to let fear dictate your life instead of hope?
My grandparent’s neighbour, who lived across the road from them for close onto a decade, who has helped with the garden and work around the house, always eager to talk shop with my grandfather – didn’t look me in the eye. My niece’s primary school headteacher, of the same primary school I attended, and one which I did much voluntary work with – did not respond when I said “good morning” to her. People from the horticultural society where my mother worked, former friends from scouts, people I knew from church and the community – I didn’t exist to them.
Every single person who I knew personally, who voted No, yet did not even extend the courtesy of looking me in the eye, know this: I was doing this for you, too. This wasn’t a game of SNP versus Labour, Nats versus Unionists, Scots versus Scots. This isn’t a football game. This wasn’t a game at all. This was to decide the future of our nation: our hands, or someone elses’ hands? A Yes vote was a victory for Scotland; a No vote was a victory for Britain. I was doing this for every No voter as well as every Yes voter. And I will never forget that you did not look me in the eye.
Councillor Chris McIleny drives by: I’m to swap stations with my mother, who was at Moorfoot Primary. Because St. Ninian’s is the biggest polling station in Gourock, the team figured Mum would be better use there while I welcomed at Moorfoot. I’m happy to go where I’m most useful.
I had a good conversation with Chris on the way up. Everyone has been working hard, getting the count results in, making sure people are getting to their polling stations. The No polling agent at Moorfoot was another old friend of the family – another white male upper-middle-class pensioner. It’s a fairly cloudy day in Gourock, but no rain, not too windy.
I notice someone has climbed the tower at Tower Hill and placed a saltire. Moorfoot offers a great view of it. I wish I had taken a picture.
One of the joys of the campaign has been the grassroots campaigners. We have a couple of them in Yes Inverclyde – and one of them turned up to Moorfoot. We heard the approach from afar: the faint skirl of traditional Scottish music, growing louder and louder. Soon the brum of car enging. Then, up the driveway we saw it – a car absolutely covered in Yes stickers, five saltires fluttering in the wind, more a Scottish carroccio than a typical vehicle, the radio blaring traditional Scottish music. Turns out, she may or may not have been responsible for the Tower Hill saltire.
Let it not be said that the electoral inspector did not call Inverclyde’s vote down the middle. As he drove up, he saw our grassroot’s cacaphony of Yes paraphernalia and immediately asked it be removed from the premises. After much reluctance, our doughty grassroots complied – parking it juuust outside the boundaries, next to the driveway to the school. Tee hee.
About that time, another Better Together/No Thanks chap came along: by the size of his rosette, I figured him to be an important individual within the local Better Together group. And in his hand… were more of those leaflets. Which he handed over to his fellow campaigners. I was so filled with indignation I made my way indoor to inform the ballot agents… only to pass the electoral inspector again, on his way out. As I entered the door, I heard a conversation about “campaign literature.” Like I said, down the middle.
I’m helpfully reminded that I might’ve forgotten to do something when I was at St. Ninians – namely, to vote. And I had two proxy votes at another station for a couple of friends on their honeymoon, too! But I couldn’t abandon my post, could I? Luckily, a friendly local grassroots campaigner agreed to meet and greet for ten or twenty minutes while I did this, while a fellow Wings Over Scotland counting agent took me on tour.
First up, back at St. Ninian’s. My mother and niece were present, everything looked in order. I said hello to all the agents again, collected my ballot, and took a minute to really slow down and contemplate exactly what was happening. Right now, in my lifetime, at the age of 30, the government of Scotland are asking me – me – and every other member of the electorate, if Scotland should be an independent country? I thought of all the people who died for this, who fought for greater autonomy. I thought of the ’45 seeking to reclaim their rightful king. I thought of the Radical War fighting for reform. I thought of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights braving to bring the discussion to the public eye after decades of sedition laws. I thought of the Red Clydeside battling for representation. I thought of the original Labour movement striving for home rule. The Scottish Covenant. 1979. The Claim of Right. 1997. Now this.
So, I made my mark. Nothing fancy, just a big, clear, black cross – a saltire – next to “Yes.” And with it, a surge of energy – hope? Power? Vindication? Whatever it was, it got me through the rest of the day.
I didn’t dally, though: two votes to come. I got to the second polling station, nerves a bit wracked – this is the first time I’ve done a proxy vote, so I didn’t want to cause any problems – and went in. Luckily no problems at all, and I took another minute to acknowledge the supreme privilege my two friends have placed in my hands. My two friends trusted me to vote Yes, out of anyone else they could have asked, and I felt very humbled as I took their trust and placed the mark upon their ballots.
There are always exceptions. Two friends of the family, who I well knew would be voting No – and given they had a vested interest in keeping nuclear submarines at Faslane, it would be difficult arguing for Yes with them – defied convention and spoke to me. It was awkward but good-natured. I wish more No voters offered me that dignity, whether I knew them or not.
The rest of the day saw the hours bleed into each other, so I can’t say for certain the exact times. I just carried on as I had done until evening. I’ll say another thing for my No Thanks counterpart: he stuck out a lot longer than anyone of his age normally would. Nonetheless, he took an hour out of every few for a rest, sometimes swapping with another individual. But at least two times throughout the day, a whole hour would go by without a No Thanks representative at Moorfoot – only a Yes representative. Few commented on the discrepancy, but I remember.
As darkness fell, so came the darkest moment of the entire campaign for me. I’d seen people I know shun me, fail to even meet my gaze, as they walked into the polling station. I was bewildered and upset, but buoyed by the strangers who did say hello. It was bearable. At around this time, I saw two young women approach. They were practically skipping, joyous in what may well have been their very first vote. They were waving something in each hand. As they approached the light, I saw the white, the blue… and the red. Union flags. They were skipping their way to the polling station while waving union flags. They smiled broadly at my opposite number, one saying “hope we win!” and sweep into the station. Not so much as a glance in my direction. After a minute, they came out again. Another broad smile and well-wish to No Thanks, another complete lack of acknowledgement that there were two people at the polling station.
It’s difficult to describe the absolute soul-crushing blackness that consumed me at that point. It wasn’t that they ignored me, Al Harron, as a human being – though that surely stung too, even after years as an awkward teenager. I’d been standing here for hours with precious little respite, you’d think a base acknowledgement of my existence would only be polite. But it was that they ignored a representative of Yes. They weren’t just ignoring me – they were ignoring all of us. We didn’t exist. They didn’t even deign our presence worthy of recognition. We were irrelevant to their world. From two young girls, with their whole life ahead of them – voting to continue Westminster rule.
At this point, I was about ready to give up. I had to be at the count, and I figured I won the moral battle. But like a stubborn old goat, I stuck it out. At 8:30, my No Thanks counterpart decided to call it a night. His companion asked snidely “you’re not going to stand here all night, are ye?” I responded, “Yes, that is exactly what I am going to do.”
So I had outlasted the No Thanks representative. I could have left there and then. But it was my job to stay here until the polling station closed, and despite my joints screaming and my feet weeping, I stuck it out. I must’ve gone into the station to say my goodbyes three times over the course of the last few hours. But eventually my aunt and two cousins granted a reprieve: they brought a jacket, and our grassroots hero came by to let me sit in the car for a bit to warm my bones.
The station closed. I was in no mood to be relaxed. I was concerned about being paranoid about the collection and the vote, but to be frank, this vote was too important not to be paranoid. If it all comes to nothing, then so what? I’ve just been paranoid. But if something did happen, how could I possibly live with myself in the knowledge that I failed in my vigilance?
Since the vote, there have been a number of conspiracies bandied about. Lost Yes votes; postal vote fraud; Yes votes piled with No votes. I’ll be getting to that shortly. I will say that I have zero doubts as to whether or not there was some level of electoral fraud taking place – of course there was. I personally witnessed examples that could be construed as such. The question is, rather, was there enough electoral fraud to affect the outcome of the vote? That is much less certain. I cannot fully subscribe to some of the more outrageous allegations, but neither can I truly say that this vote was done truly by the book. I’ll explain more later.
Suffice to say, I was extremely suspicious of everything that went on as a matter of course. I kept an eye on the ballot boxes at all times. The Yesmobile was stationed outside, ready to take off and shadow the van. Four more grassroots were present to watch, and my mother’s car soon joined us. It felt like an action movie as we drove after the van, praying for the lights to stay on our side, leaping out as they came to each polling station in turn. There was an air of unreality to it all, as if this wasn’t truly happening – the winds of change, perhaps? The winds of history?
Eventually all the ballots were collected. We thoroughly checked to make sure everything was in order. When we drove to the Waterfront, we joined a queue of about a dozen or so similar vehicles. I left it to the grassroots to continue: I had to make for the count.
After finding the entrance, I met with a good friend, and found several fellow campaigners present. We all embraced and shook hands, while I begrudgingly offered a handshake to the lone No Thanks representative. I brought my passport along, and received my Wings Over Scotland Counting Agent card. My heart swelled with pride, as I affixed the badge to my lapel. I silently vowed to do the Reverend, Wings Over Scotland, my country, and my people, proud. I’ve always been rather iconoclastic when it came to stuff like this, but at the time it just felt appropriate, you know?
I needed that enthusiasm for the night to follow.
The 19th of September, 2014
We met in the ice rink. Hundreds of people were present: counting agents, counters, tellers, organisers, politicians, media, you name it. The winds of history blowed through my soul again: here the fate of Inverclyde – possibly Scotland itself – hanged in the balance. But we had some time for a cup of tea, a chat, and taking a seat. I took the time to have some very deep, heart-to-heart talks with a few fellow campaigners: young, old, male, female, socialist, social democrat, all sorts. I felt distinct pride in knowing them, for I could tell that every single one of them was feeling the same thrill and fear at the enormousness of what was going on right now. This is the most important thing that the people of Scotland have ever done, and we were right in the middle of it.
In addition to fellow Yes campaigners, I also had some genial encounters with our opposition. One, a student of my mother’s who I still can’t understand why was on the No side, congratulated me on a well-run campaign. I truly wish I could’ve said the same to her, but I think even if I did, she knew I would not have been truthful. A few fresh-faced youths, even that rarest beast – a young Conservative! – were also very welcoming, if understandably nervous.
The same cannot be said for our elected officials. Remember how few No voters could look me in the eye? This was even more pronounced among our supposed representatives. Of all the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Conservative MPs, MSPs, and councillors present at the count, only one looked me in the eye. The rest of them acted as if I was a ghost. Councillor Jim Clocherty, who worked with my grandmother back in the day. Councillor Stephen McCabe, husband of my niece’s primary school headteacher. Even the former provost David Roach, who I met earlier in the day, didn’t seem to see me at the count – presumably because the other Labour folk were watching. But most devastating of all was Councillor Martin Brennan. Martin was a history teacher at my high school, the husband of my Primary Seven teacher. I regularly joined his debating society. I looked up to him: he was wise, intelligent, compassionate. I attended the untimely funeral of his son, for God’s sake. Yet he would not, or could not, look me in the eye.
When people talk about how the referendum “divided” Scotland, I’m starting to wonder if the people claiming that – usually No voters – are doing it deliberately. Time and time again I said hello to Councillors Clocherty, Mr McCabe, and Brennan. Time and again, they ignored me. If there’s division going on between Yes and No in Scotland, then I’ve only seen one side culpable in it. Will you ever be able to look me in the eye, Martin? Or am I past the point of no return for you – one of those terrible Nats? Did the boy you taught at school die in your eyes the moment he affixed a Yes badge? Would you have attended his funeral, as I did for your son’s?
By the by, that one elected official, the only one who not only returned my gaze, but actually verbally responded to my greeting? Iain McKenzie, MP for Inverclyde. In light of recent events following the referendum, I have to wonder just what he’s doing in Labour at all.
The count has started. We take a table each, and watch for any irregularities, make sure everything is above board. I took the first free table, and did exactly that. I was pleased to see the inspector again, who seemed pleasantly surprised at my persistence and resilience. At this point, he seemed like an old friend. I only looked at the No piles, stopping only occasionally to review a rejected or questionable ballot. There were only half a dozen or so questionables, and they were quite clearly spoiled ballots – both boxes crossed – and one No ballot had the Yes scored out, which I (probably a bit too cheerfully) accepted.
I’m going to take a brief moment to applaud the counters: they had a tough, nerve-racking job, and they performed admirably. On occasion they would make genuine mistakes like putting a Yes in the No pile or vice-versa, but they self-corrected without any prompting from myself or the inspector. Once that table was finished, I moved on to another. This next table was much the same as the first, and I was content that nothing unusual had occurred save one niggling concern: every so often, there would be a large number of Nos in a row, sometimes a dozen at a time, all with extremely similar, if not identical, crosses. Paranoia dictates electoral fraud, but I didn’t trust my judgement enough to call attention to it. Perhaps I should have done so: even if the crosses didn’t turn out to be actually identical, I wonder if that time spent would’ve been truly “wasted” given the importance of this count. Regardless, after they finished, I moved to the third and final table – after lurching painfully to the other side of the hall for a seat. I wasn’t going to miss anything if I could help it, especially after those multiple Nos.
Anomalies on the ballots aside, I can say, hand on heart, that I did not personally witness anything untoward occur in my presence – I cannot speak for others, but from what I saw, it was the definition of a democratic, orderly count. The ballots themselves were more problematic to me, but being as I was not in a position to determine their validity, I just hoped that others who could were vigilant.
Already I could see signs of the result. Councillor McCabe was sweating bullets. All the No campaigners were unusually quiet and bewildered. A glance cast at the piles of paper showed that this would be tight. I foresaw this possibility, but was confident – until I saw a pile from Kilmacolm. Kilmacolm wasn’t covered in our canvassing. We were going by Holyrood constituency, which stopped at Kilmacolm and Quarrier’s village – that was Renfrew. Why the hell did we have Kilmacolm’s ballots? What’s more, Kilmacolm was always deemed to be No territory – historically Conservative, affluent, the residence of the Council Leader. I knew as soon as I saw it that Kilmacolm was going to determine whether Inverclyde was Yes or No – for without Kilmacolm, Inverclyde would have been a comfortable Yes.
Even as I watched the count at the last table, I overheard mutterings of a recount. Indeed, the poor ladies and gentlemen at my table were handed piles of ballots from the box. Evidently a number of Yes votes were found in a No pile, and a recount was necessary to cover it. Ever mindful, I decided to watch the recount aswell. The recount was more troubling: apparently, some ballots had gone missing. I expected minor issues like this, until I saw someone else I knew – a presiding officer, who I knew to be a personal friend of Stephen McCabe. What was he doing as a presiding officer? Even if he called it fair and square, surely he should never have been put in such a position?
Again, I’m wary of raising the spectre of conspiracy, even when we’re dealing with parties who have a track record of electoral fraud. But if there’s a single constituency in Scotland whose result could have been affected by even small-scale skullduggery, it was Inverclyde, as we’ll soon see.
The first results had come in. Clackmannanshire was no. Shetland was No. Orkney was No. You might as well have told me those places had sunk beneath the waves with all lives lost for the impact that news had on me.
For the first time in the referendum, I lost my cool. I swore, I stamped my foot, and stormed out of the room. I didn’t give much of a care whether I looked childish or impatient, because all I could feel was unreasoning frustration. What do you mean they voted No? How could they vote No? What in God’s name is going on? Then I realised the enormity of what we faced – some regions had voted No to independence. This was not going to be the landslide I thought it would be.
This was the point I finally broke, and burst into tears. I haven’t wept in a long, long time, not even during this campaign. But I wept, bitterly and openly, as I realised that this was truly a fight for the nation’s soul, and that in some places, that fight had been lost. Whatever the result of the referendum, be it a Yes or a No, there were some places that had voted against taking their own future into their own hands. Every other constituency could have voted Yes, and I still would have mourned for Clackmannanshire, Shetland and Orkney, for being so paralysed with fear, poisoned with lies, or contemptuous with disregard for their own people that they voted for Westminster to retain sovereignty over their futures. It could have been a landslide in every other constituency, but the knowledge that there was even one place that voted No was too much for me.
Some places had, willingly, voted to leave power in the hands of Westminster. The politicians which have destroyed the foundations of the modern country – its health service, its industry, its law, its social security, its very culture. The establishment which has covered up, and continues to cover up, appalling crimes going all the way to the Prime Minister. The government which has carried out crimes against basic humanity – on the disabled, the poor, the migrants, the disadvantaged, the vulnerable. The system which ensures that unelected lords can wipe away democracy with no accountability and less protest. They voted to let them continue running – and ruining – their lives. Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative – it didn’t matter who they voted in. They voted for Westminster over Scotland. They voted for Westminster over Scotland.
And so I wept, I screamed, I roared in helpless, impotent rage. Several of my Yes Inverclyde friends attempted to comfort me, and I’ll never forget their compassion and understanding, especially as I revealed some deeply personal truths to them in my emotive state. Truths that I only reveal to my very closest friends – and I knew, even as I uttered them, that I could trust these people with that knowledge.
But still I wept. I went outside to breath, with one of the great shining lights of Yes Inverclyde. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I seriously contemplated staying outside for the count. I didn’t think I could bear it, even if it was a Yes. I thought my heart would burst. I thought I’d have another aneurysm, like the one which left me bedridden for six months at the age of 15. I thought I would meltdown into a catatonic state. But once again, intervention came in an unlikely form – the inspector, he who I had encountered throughout the day, came outside for a breather himself. By this time I got all the tears out, but he could tell I had a time of it. He begged me to reconsider staying outside, for he thought I would regret it – especially given how much I’ve put into the campaign to this point. I owed it to myself to see it through.
So I went in. It was time. I gripped the steel handrail until my fingers went white. I closed my eyes.
The count was announced. I braced myself for – I don’t know what. All I knew was that I had to keep control.
Silence reigned for a second. Then a slow, strangely subdued yell of triumph – from the other side of the room. It was a No – by the barest, merest, tiniest of margins. Enough for Duncan McNeill to lie through his teeth about Inverclyde “overwhelmingly” voting for the Union. Enough for the almost entirely male conquerors to bellow “Inverclyde says No!” to the cameras – the nervous unease in their eyes belying the true fragility of their victory. Enough for me to lift my head, and smile.
That’s less than a hundred votes, out of over fifty thousand. From a constituency we were told we could not win. A Labour stronghold, with significant elderly and affluent populations, just recovering from the shock of Ferguson’s near-closure. And they only got 0.2% more than Yes. A strange feeling overcame me – not of defeat, but of assurance. We took the fight to No Thanks in Inverclyde, and gave them such a battering that it was almost literally too close to call. 86 votes decided it. 86! Out of 54,000!
The rest of the team was devastated, quite understandably. We faced a complete shambles of a campaign, yet still lost, by the narrowest of margins. There were tears, of course. But not from me. I think I was lucky, I got all my emotion out in one crazed exultation before the count was even done. Even having barely lost, all I could think of was what we’d won. We won 27,243 people over to our cause – and I doubt a single one of those 27,243 would ever go back. Can the No side say the same? That 27,329 who voted N0 – they voted that way because they were lied to, bullied, deceived, browbeaten, or simply too selfish to see the bigger picture. Already I saw the faces of No voters – No voters who couldn’t look into my eyes – and knew that some of them would regret their vote. And maybe then, they would look me in the eyes, some day. And I would welcome their gaze.
We had truth on our side. Can the No campaign say the same?
We had right on our side. Can the No campaign say the same?
We had hope on our side. Can the No campaign say the same?
After the count, everyone packed up. Before I left, I sought out that inspector, who’d been such an anchor throughout the day, to thank him personally for all he did. He and I shared a good conversation, and he considerably lifted my spirits.
With the benefit of hindsight, I feel cheated. We at Yes Inverclyde worked so hard for those 27,243 votes, I felt positive that this sort of turnaround was replicated in every constituency. It never occurred to me that we were an anomaly in Scotland, more than doubling the Yes support since the beginning of the campaign in earnest. We went from ranked 20th to ranked 5th. Inverclyde and our neighbours Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire, and North Lanarkshire all beat the odds with epic Yes gains – not enough for overall Yes, but enough to show that it could be done. This link – if you can ignore the patronising “head over heart” language and the representation of Yes in negative numbers – explains just how remarkable Yes Inverclyde’s campaign was.
I had truly believed that if we could even gain a strong showing for Inverclyde, then we could take Scotland. That proved not to be. It would be easy of me to be angry: at Yes Scotland for the missteps along the way; at the many Yes voters who didn’t put in the same amount of work and effort as the people at Yes Inverclyde; at other constituencies which returned far greater No votes than we could have possibly expected. We could talk about the intricacies of the count. We could talk about what the hell we’re going to do now.
There’s little point in belabouring the emotions I’ve felt over the past week or so. But I will say this: it isn’t over. You could look back to other points in Scottish history to compare the referendum to. The Battle of Killiecrankie has popped up, as has Falkirk and Culloden. For my part, I think of the Battle of Methven.
After the murder of Wallace, Scotland was believed defeated for good. Then from out of nowhere, the idea of Scottish independence hit like a thunderbolt when Bruce murdered Comyn. Edward appointed someone linked to Comyn, Aymer de Valence, as the plenipotentiary of Scotland. Edward ordered de Valence to raise the Dragon Banner, signalling no quarter or mercy to Bruce and his followers. Edward held a banquet in May, and took a solemn oath – the Oath of the Swans – to avenge Comyn’s death and the treachery of the Scots.
Valence worked with Comyn’s supporters and made his base of operations at Perth. The Bruce’s army came to Perth. The later battle was characterised by the Bruce following the gentlemanly convention of feudal warfare, while Valence was ruthless and uncompromising. The Bruce offered to meet Valence on the battlefield, but Valence declined. Bruce retired for Methven, but trusted in Valence to adhere to the rules of chivalry and didn’t erect defensive pickets around his army. Just before, Valence’s army took the Bruce by surprise and almost destroyed his smaller army, violating the rules of Medieval chivalry in their determination to crush the Bruce.
After Methven, the Bruce went into hiding – this was the period of the famous spider episode – and was excommunicated, but support for the cause continues to grow in his absence (SNP/SGP/SSP membership flourishes) while lands owned by the Bruce were granted to Edward’s followers.
What happens next? Well, on his return in February, the Scots leader could engage in a different type of warfare, taking back his former lands, destroying the power of the Comyns once and for all. The Bruce – and the campaign for independence – was marked by nearly unstoppable momentum from 1308-1314. Castle after castle fell, and the Bruce even raided into England and the Isle of Man.
Then we have our Bannockburn – another referendum, or another action which would lead to cementing independence. Given the atrocities perpetuated by Westminster, even the madness of UDI is starting to look less dangerous than remaining in the UK. Like Bannockburn, we’ll have to face overwhelming odds – but like Bannockburn, we’ll be seasoned campaigners, honed, weathered, veterans, used to fighting a guerrila war, and subverting the top-down strategy of feudalism, putting the people first, like in the Declaration of Arbroath.
The 18th and 19th of September were both the most shameful and the very proudest days of my life. I would, naturally, change the outcome if I could. But I don’t regret playing my part in one of the most important days in Scotland’s history. Scotland’s people are incredible. Despite the cringe, despite the clearances, despite the anti-Scottish propaganda, Scotland abides. It perseveres. It perseveres not through genetic or ethnic heritage, or through strict territorial ownership, or even through mythic traditions – it perseveres because it welcomes one and all into the fold, to ensure that it survives. Scotland survived domination by England, where its status as a kingdom was all but extinguished. Scotland survived attempts to relegate it to regional status during the Jacobean and Victorian periods, where it was called North Britain and deemed no more distinctive from England than Yorkshire from Northumbria. Scotland survived all manner of attempts to destroy it. It will survive this, for as long as a hundred of us remain alive to fight for it.
And the best part is that the rest of Scotland’s history has only just begun.