In late September, 2014, Scotland held a referendum to decide if they wanted to secede from the United Kingdom. The campaign ran for close to two years and through much of the debate, the result seemed to be a foregone conclusion, with opinion polls indicating a solid majority opposed to independence. In the months before the vote the gap began to close at a rapid rate, throwing the future of the United Kingdom in to the unknown. A week before Scots headed to the polls, support for independence appeared to be growing at an unstoppable rate.
What resulted was an astonishing few days marked by a surge in national pride, intense debate and a very public soul searching process by just about everyone in Scotland. Panic-stricken British party leaders, sensing that the vote was trending away from them, boarded trains to Scotland, offers of devolution in hand, to try and convince Scots to stay. The trips would serve only to embolden the surging ‘yes’ campaign as the politicians seemed at a complete loss as to how to make an argument for saving the union. At the same time the corporate establishment launched an aggressive campaign, reminding their wavering supporters of the consequences of a ‘yes’ vote. Banks threatened to leave Scotland, supermarkets warned of skyrocketing food prices and business leaders reminded Scots of how many projects were on hold in anticipation of the vote. A surreal debate raged about the true size of Scottish North Sea oil reserves and whether or not they could sustain the birth of a new country. Editorial boards across the United Kingdom had already come out en masse in favour of maintaining the union- of the almost 70 major newspapers in Great Britain, only one, the Sunday Herald in Glasgow, endorsed a ‘yes’ vote. Commentators pushed the narrative that the representatives elected by Scottish voters weren’t qualified to run the country and attention focused heavily on the more slippery pro-independence characters in Scottish politics. Throughout the world, not one legitimate national foreign government endorsed an independent Scotland.
Amidst the onslaught, the ‘yes’ campaign seemed almost surprised by how well their campaign was unfolding. The atmosphere within the ‘yes’ organization veered towards giddy and the energy they exuded was clear. It was as if the dominoes were falling in to place.
In the days before the vote, the the consensus around the country was that a ‘yes’ was the likely outcome. On referendum night, George Square in Glasgow became a sea of youthful energy, full of song and good humour. As the early votes came in and key districts swung towards ‘no’, it became clear that the United Kingdom was going to survive the day. Ultimately the result came down to the swing voters who propelled the ‘no’ vote to 55 per cent who, even if the ‘yes’ campaign had struck a chord with them, weren’t convinced by a few crucial issues. In particular, whether a new country would be able to continue to use the British Pound and whether an independent Scotland could protect its assets and preserve universal health care. A deep-seeded worry, a sentiment not exclusive to Scotland, about risking economic stability ultimately carried the day for the pro-union campaign.
To most people in Scotland it was a vote that should never have happened. Devolution, or a greater influence over their own affairs, was always the real demand but it was never on the table until a ‘yes’ vote became likely. Even for people who voted to maintain the union, the fact that neither the London political establishment (or seemingly anyone in the English population for that matter) could find the words to convince Scotland to stay became clear. In the end, Scottish ‘no’ voters saved the union despite the absence of a compelling case put forward by the pro-union campaign. It wasn’t, as the post-referendum narrative suggests, done out of duty, or a sense of history or out of fear of going it alone but more because they decided it was the best course of action they could take at the time of the vote. The potential risks seemed high. Whether or not it turns out to be a pyrrhic victory will be answered in short stead when the questions arise in Westminster (the British parliament) as to how and when they will deliver on the promises made to Scotland during the referendum.
Throughout the process, those who traveled across the country throughout the referendum saw something remarkable. The negativity and scaremongering of the ‘no’ campaign, a perceived media bias and the lack of international support ultimately weren’t what won the day for the United Kingdom- what mattered to Scots was the strength of the core arguments put forward by the respective campaigns and, as a result, each person voted for what they thought was right. While they ultimately voted ‘no’, Scotland seriously considered voting ‘yes’. In retrospect, it would be easy to explain the vote as the result of a population buckling under the pressure of the threats put forward by the pro-union campaign but it appeared on the ground that many people voted no, not because they were scared or that they weren’t proud to be Scottish, but because the ‘yes’ campaign failed to explain key issues well enough. When the vote was done, it was apparent on the streets that their collective conscience was clear. It was a group of people that knew the world was watching and they took the process seriously, never succumbing to cynicism. Many on the ground in Scotland noted that the campaign itself would ultimately prove to be as valuable as the outcome itself with the emergence of a distinct national dialogue, a defined set of national values and the emergence of a new generation of Scottish politician on both sides of the debate. Young people appeared to drop their apathy and embrace the democratic process and many issues, like social justice, income inequality, the environment and Scotland’s role in international affairs, previously pushed towards the fringes, emerged as topics of every day conversation. It was as if the process of imagining what a new country would look like reminded people that their opinions matter and that their votes count.
To the outsiders who made the trip to observe the referendum, the campaign was significant because of the clarity of its question, its respect for the democratic process, its rejection of external interference and for the civility by which both campaigns conducted themselves. What was apparent was that, in a world where people are increasingly distant from their political processes, the vote in Scotland was a model for democracy around the world- voter registration was an astonishing 97 per cent with 85 per cent of Scots eventually casting a ballot. When the results were announced, almost no one questioned the fairness of the result and, while there was sadness on the ‘yes’ side and relief on the ‘no’, very few people inside Scotland retreated in to bitterness.
Below are some pictures documenting the days before, on and after the referendum in and around George Square in central Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and the epicentre of public discourse surrounding the referendum. The crowds at George Square were never as large as the post-referendum hyperbole suggested and, while emotions ran high at times, outside of a few incidents that would happen in any city, there was almost no violence, very little acrimony and much discussion. I hope they tell at least a part of the story.
Referendum night, George Square, Glasgow.