I simply had to go to Scotland for the referendum. I’d had enough of watching the build-up to the vote through someone else’s lens; I had to see it for myself.
Whether it was some atavistic urge (see previous Scotland post), a healthy – or unhealthy – curiosity, or just a concern for the state of the nation – my nation – I virtually felt the pull as a physical force. But even before I took the 10.00 train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh on the day of the referendum, I was treated to a beguiling sight [above].
A woman carrying a saltire and the Union Jack on the forecourt of the railway station appeared to be praying to herself and reading from the Bible. She was possibly homeless, having a supermarket trolley packed with goods nearby. But she didn’t fully conform to the cliché of a homeless person; she was well presented and the trolley was tidy.
I was struck by the intensity of her absorption with the printed word and her meditative approach to it. She was oblivious to the whorl of the rush hour around her, holding the flags aloft, at times leafing through pages, perhaps to find verses appropriate to this momentous occasion. I guessed she was pro-union, but I could be wrong. I could have asked her, but I was loathe to interrupt. It was simultaneously a public and private moment.
The journey from London itself was absorbing too. A very polite woman apologised for disturbing me as she took the seat next to me, but needn’t have done so. She and her husband and son were travelling from their Pimlico home to their Ayrshire base to vote, via a family commitment in the north east. It transpired she was Caroline Knox, director of ‘The World’s Only Festival of Biography and Memoir’, the Boswell Book Festival. Her husband is the MD of The Art Newspaper, and was formerly the saviour of The Spectator. We had an animated discussion about the Establishment being in a blue funk about the vote (a commentator on STV later analysed it as UK Prime Minister David Cameron agreeing to the wrong question – why not make it Yes to the union? – with the wrong timing, allowing Salmond too long to mobilise, and the wrong people fronting Better Together, the No campaign.)
Wall of dreams
Arriving in Edinburgh, for the first half mile along Princes Street away from Waverley station it was possible to believe it was just another dreary day in the city. Buses disgorged and engorged passengers, clouds threatened rain, shoppers shopped. 307 years of joint history within the United Kingdom looked unthreatened. But the story changed as I approached the National Gallery.
A rock band augmented by a bagpiper played enthusiastically to a meagre crowd, while a couple of young women danced on the steps in front of them, one holding a letter ‘N’, the other an ‘O’, each about 50cm high. Visually, though, Yeses were in the ascendant. The cobbles were covered in affirmations of independence, and the graffiti artists had at least had the decency to use chalk and not an indelible medium.
That split was, it seemed to me, symptomatic of how the nation was in the run-up to the referendum: the Yeses had the greater presence, but the phenomenon of the ‘quiet Nos’ (or at least quieter Nos) was real. Allegedly, some people were putting up Yes posters and stickers in their windows to avoid constant canvassing – and then voting No.
The sight that really started to justify the 400+ mile trek north for me was of the messages in The Mound precinct, a couple of tied together double-height barricades bearing handwritten aspirations for a post-referendum Scotland. I would be surprised if they hadn’t featured in television coverage even in England, but they had passed me by till now. Some of the requests were unarguable by many people’s standards (most shouty capitals removed): ‘A fairer, more democratic society…’, ‘In a new Scotland there should be no need for food banks’, ‘Total equality for women…’ Others would be harder to deliver: ‘No government borrowing…’, ‘No abuse of power, No corruption…’
It took me a moment to twig that the one No not clearly represented in this display was the No to Scottish independence. It was apparently off-limits and thought to be necessarily incompatible with these other hopes and, presumably, with the idea of a new Scotland.
Sleep on it
I made Perth around dusk and landed on my feet at the Sunbank House Hotel which had one room left. The woman who served my evening meal was one of the quiet Nos, and looked genuinely anxious about which way the result would go. She finished work shortly afterwards, and I felt for her as she and countless others would later go to bed not knowing what kind of country they would wake up to.
After the polls closed, I flitted between all the various TV channels’ coverage, then finally landed on my favourite medium of radio. I think this plebiscite’s equivalent of “Were you up for Portillo?” (from the 1997 UK general election) is ‘Were you up for Glasgow?’. Technically, my answer was ‘No’ as I was lying on the bed, but in between bouts of snoozing, I did hear the result for the nation’s biggest city come through (53% in favour of No on a 75% turnout). Despite that, the result by then was pretty certain and went the other way.
I wonder if the woman outside Kings Cross had had her prayers answered..?