Yesterday was a long day. A dense, gloomy haar pervaded the streets of Edinburgh on the morning of 19 September. Scotland woke up (or had stayed up) to a 55/45% vote in favour of preserving the United Kingdom. Only Glasgow and Dundee had voted in favour of ‘Yes’ to independence. The No/ Better Together campaign had won. But it didn’t look like a victory. There was no partying on the streets, no singing, and the ‘No thanks’ posters in windows were discreetly taken down. Scotland felt eerily sad and grey.
The most energising and inclusive call to democratic engagement ever witnessed in UK political history (97% voter registration and over 84% electoral turnout) was suddenly muted and paused. Paused in uncertainty of where to go next. Muted for lack of guiding words and dismay at the broken vows on new powers as Labour and the Tories returned to squabbling at Westminster. The media focus shifted back to London and it seemed that two years of passionate debate had, in fact, been all about establishing an English Parliament.
After polling stations closed on the night of the Referendum, I had sat at my kitchen table sharing drams and stories with friends and siblings- yes and no voters amongst us – and waited for the results to come in on the TV. Over a meal, we exchanged memories of the last two years of the IndyRef and asked questions about what the future might hold. Wendy poignantly told us her memories of voting in the first democratic elections in the new South Africa in 1994. South African, English, Northern Irish, Peruvian, Scottish and Leither…. not a saltire flag between us on Thursday night, but we were all proudly Scottish together.
As news of the pro-Union Better Together victory was confirmed at about 5am, we slowly surveyed the debris of sleeping bags, empty bottles and tattered dreams. Friends busied themselves making pots of tea, offered hugs, and scrolled Twitter newsfeeds to try to make sense of it all. Because this is what people do after a crisis. We pulled on boots over jammies and shuffled through damp autumn leaves on the Water of Leith pathway. We reminded ourselves that Scotland dug in deep to democracy and that there is a momentum for change that isn’t going away. And we made more tea. Everything feels better after tea, and a sleep. I wanted some time alone to clear my head and so I went to Portobello beach with my dog Bonnie and surveyed the shades of grey sand and tide. Dogs are such intuitive creatures. They know when extra cuddles are needed and that it’s hard to suppress laughter at a dog back-flipping in the waves. I stood staring at the St Andrews crosses pinned to masts along the shoreline and politely asked a passer-by if she knew the significance. “Oh, that will be something to do with those Yes people I should think”, oblivious to the international volleyball tournament taking place further up the beach.
The Yes people are the 1.6 million and the 45%. Over the last few hours, identifying with being a #45er has become a badge of pride to be worn on social media profiles. A need to console and commiserate this week is understandable, but it would be tragic, and counterproductive to the longer term aim of increasing 45% to over 50%, to retreat into a Them and Us little-Scotlander dichotomy. Before and after the vote, it is about reaching out. I came back home from the beach in time to hear Alex Salmond’s resignation speech (“ … for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.”) and I suddenly and unexpectedly wept. I wept not for change in political leadership but for the fragility of hope in a lost Yes Generation. That a small, resource-rich country didn’t seize with both hands the opportunity to rid itself of nuclear weapons, to lift its poorest out of poverty, and to have a foreign policy based on equal relations, is something that will take a while to understand.
After sadness comes anger. Anger at the cosy, neoliberal consensus of big media and big money (see George Monbiot’s widely circulated ‘How the media shafted the people of Scotland’) that patronized Scotland with fear and false promises in the final days of the Indy debate. I don’t want to be an angry person. And as analysis suggests that it was older and more affluent voters that predominated No, I especially don’t want to be angry with grandparents and peers. So we need to be open to new conversations.
I had a longstanding hair appointment booked for today and, exhausted from a mix of anxiety and adrenaline and not in the mood for ‘talking politics’, I considered cancelling. Then I told myself that no movement for social change should be fought without good hair and that some pampering would be nice, so I kept the appointment. Wielding his scissors against my jawline, my hairdresser hesitated before inquiring “.. and were you happy yesterday?”. I paused. And then told him that, honestly, I was trying to shake off the gloom. His face relaxed and he let his own pathos pour out. We had both, mistakenly, assumed the other was a ‘Them’ and not an ‘Us’. And then we went back to talking about the weather.
David Greig on Twitter earlier cautioned against #45% branding; suggesting instead Yes, Aye and How No rather than adopting the inherent pessimism of being a #45%er or a ‘not quite enough-er’. I agree. It is the ‘how’ in No that we are all collectively – 45% and much of the 55% – searching for in reform of UK constitutionalism. A One Scotland requires acceptance and love, not judgement and moral high-ground.
It was in praise of One Scotland that friends from across the world (all constitutional law alumni as it happens) sent messages of admiration and support in the past few days, including:
Denaura from Italy: “ Likely I misunderstood the whole thing, but I feel this vote has political, social and economic grounds, but it has also a great deal of cultural base, otherwise I could not explain all the intellectuals and artists’ intervention in the debate. Another aspect which I read with curiosity, but I don’t know if it’s real or not, regards some kind of “age gap”… Elders are (mainly) for NO and Youngers for YES. Is it correct? It is very interesting…I can’t see similar engagement of Italian “youth” in social and political issues…. I wish to you and Scotland buona fortuna…Un abbraccio!”
Jamie from New York: “How exciting things are in Scotland! Were you a yes vote or a no vote? 🙂 Are you staying up all night to watch the result?”
Anta from Greece: “For all it’s worth, I’ve had my share of doubts for the “Yes” vote, but I’m not a Scot – and it’s just not fair to judge a nation’s sentiment from across the continent. So no patronizing here. Jemma Neville, hope that the future is bright for you and that your amazing voters turnout and citizen involvement will continue to all future electoral procedures.”
And, of course, from Catalunya: “Para los catalanes el ejemplo de Scotland és esperanza aunque haya ganado el no…peace and love” After the fog and the tears, we will find our way again and get back on the path to connections, participation and imagination. For now, we still have one another, and flights to Barcelona.