A dream unravels


In the end it was all over with a whimper and two years of anticipation unravelled in a couple of hours. In the club we had fallen into on Niddry Street somewhere after midnight, crowds that would usually be bouncing off the walls in raucous revellry  were clustered underneath TV screens, staring up as the results came in.

By 3am it was obvious which way it was going to go. Maybe it was just in my dehydrated brain, but everywhere in the sweaty underground maze of rooms and bars, an instant hangover seemed to suddenly kick in. It was a difficult soreness, not violent or mean, just a sour whiff in the air.

Just a few hours before, it was a very different scene. The misty streets of Edinburgh didn’t have the electric atmosphere I had imagined. But there was something in the air that night.

A different type of mist; an emotional, sentimental, even hysterical insulation from normality had condensed. Faces painted blue and white and shoulders draped in the Saltire flickered in the crowded streets.

Film crews’ lights flooded cobbled squares and grand stone walls, and as the evening went on clusters of people gathered on street corners and in pubs, riding an invisible wave of expectant energy that rose as the hours slipped by.

The pro-independence crowd was by far the more active; I sense the ‘no’ voters had decided that a quiet night in would be safer all round. But there certainly wasn’t anything dangerous about the atmosphere. If anything it was hopeful and positive – there was a warmth, an eagerness, a thrill about the blue crowds.

Watching it all from England had felt very sterile. And according to parts of the British media you’d have thought it was mainly the cranks and the bleeding hearts that wanted Scotland to go it alone anyway.

But looking around at the blue flags and the ‘yes’ badges and the posters in windows all over the city, it suddenly dawned on me how real this was. Every person with a ‘yes’ sticker had made up their mind; they wanted to break away. They were ready to do it; they were ready to take a momentous step into the unknown and they had enough faith in themselves and their countrymen to do it.

And there was something more than that I think. Speaking to some of the ‘yes’ voters, it wasn’t just a chance to be take control. It was a way of ridding themselves from a system that we harbour in England. A system where one city utterly dominates everything: politics, finance, media, culture. A system in which the further away you move away from this powerhouse the more remote and disconnected you become.

The disdain with which many in England talked about the Scots’ cheeky bid for freedom just confirmed this. The cockiness with which so many dismissed it as a pathetic attempt by a weak nation doomed to fail, the ‘biting the hand that feeds them’ attitude, I found particularly galling.

I’m glad Scotland is staying, but I don’t blame the 45% for wanting to leave. In various conversations I had before the vote, the words ‘patronising’, ‘arrogant’, ‘ignorant’ and worse kept popping up. There is, I think, a terrible sense of disenfranchisement among Scots against a system they feel has let them down, and it was that, more than the thrill of self-governance, that was what was driving many down the Yes road.

But all that had disappeared by 3am. The energy had switched into a far more bitter frequency. Hope suddenly seemed like naivety; a dull resignation had prevailed.

It wasn’t until the light of day that it all came clear, during a conversation with a local shop owner. I’d been sent up to write a feature about the referendum and what it meant for independent fashion retailers in Scotland.

Talking to them, and a couple of other people in the cafes I stopped into along the way, the most potent emotion that day was sadness. Even those who had voted No told me they felt sad. Not because of the result, clearly, but because an opportunity had gone by to do something really special.

Many, I think, were waiting, willing to be swayed. But they just weren’t given enough to go on. As one shop owner put it, “The No campaign didn’t win this – the Yes campaign lost it”.

My last stop before I huffed back to Waverley Station was at a modern kilt-maker’s on Thistle Street and its owner, Howie, a passionate Yes voter. An independent shop owner that had made his own breakaway journey six years ago, he had plenty to say about why this was such a shame, a waste, even a tragedy for the people of Scotland.

And as he rattled through his reasons, no doubt with an awful hollowness compared to just a day before, he stumbled across an incident that had occurred that morning on his way to work. He had met a young woman, also trudging into work, who had stopped and sat down at a bus stop to have a cry.

And as he relived the encounter, a phrase she had used echoed in his mind so sharply that I could see his eyes redden and fill with tears. She had said to him, “That was my future at stake, and now nothing’s going to change”.

Howie had to step outside for a minute and light a cigarette, hoping to kill off the emotions with a sharp burst of nicotine. But as I peered out I saw that he couldn’t hold himself back any more.

Plenty were crowing on Friday morning, particularly in England. The No vote was vindication in their minds that the SNP was out of touch, that independence had been a ludicrous, childish venture that had been a minor inconvenience to the status quo but never something worth taking seriously.

But it’s a hollow victory when 1,617,989 people were ready to take that giant leap compared to just over 2 million who weren’t. It should stand as a warning, and a lesson to all of us; resentment is seething away in the regions. There are people who feel utterly cut off, remote, disenfranchised.

I’m glad it was a No vote, I really am, because I wouldn’t want to live in a UK that didn’t include Scotland. But as my train made its way through the mist again, and Edinburgh, and Scotland slipped away, all I took away was sadness.

There’s very little room for emotion in British politics; a dull, blinkered cynicism prevails. But this was a referendum of the heart. It made people believe, for a minute, that they could take control of their lives, however naive that might look in the cold, clear, mist-free light of today.