On the 19th of September 2014, I wrote a piece entitled “under the low sky.” It is an evocative line – stolen – from a book I read years ago about the experience of living in the Netherlands, where the horizon presses down on you, without the thrown elbows of mountains to keep it at bay. But the phrase seemed apt to the slate-grey Glasgow afternoon which the indyref left in its wake, and the half-throttled sense of sadness I felt, as the long day wore on, accumulating sorrows.
Unlike many folk, I felt no real hope or anticipation that the Yes campaign would carry the day two years ago. Defeat, even a narrow defeat, seemed almost inevitable. When Clackmannanshire declared, the night was already dead for me. I know some folk waited and waited up, in hope and expectation, but Don Quixote’s horse had already been shot out from under him. Sancho Panza was floating, face down, in the Clyde. Being right wasn’t much of an emotional salve, it transpired.
As the Orcadians said No, I escaped from Pacific Quay into the cold but fresher night air, as the wind chased down the currents of the river and the BBC building behind me fizzed and sweltered and thronged. Big Kevin McKenna, built like a Renaissance cardinal, was sucking a sanguine cigarette outside. We talked, briefly, only to be interrupted by the jubilant figure of Margaret Curran. I remember the Labour MP did a kind of jinking danse macabre as the majority No vote accumulated, a sort of hirpling Scottische. You shouldn’t begrudge your opponents their successes, I suppose. But that little jig. I’ll never, ever – quite – be able to forgive Margaret Curran for her little jig.
(Though I suppose, as the saying goes, she’s not jigging noo. “Even victors are by victories undone.” In the aftermath of the 2015 general election, I happened to bump into the former Scottish Labour MP in a pub in Oxford during a flying visit. Sauntering past her as she walked in to the Lamb and Flag, I was stunned to hear myself say “You’re Margaret Curran. Tell me. How are you bearing up?” As luck would have it, Curran clearly had no idea who I was, or any clue about my separatist politics. I left her with a kind word, undisabused, as an apparently sympathetic Scotsman, safely south of the wall.)
But back in Pacific Quay, in the early hours of the 19th of September 2014, Margaret was still jigging. I decided to leave before the emotion of the moment overtook me, and I said something I might come to regret. Abandoning all hope of securing a friendly cab out of there, I made my escape on foot, marching out along the banks of the river, an unsteady, half-gralloched figure, lurching between sorrow, rage and resignation.
My company for the first part of this journey – perhaps curiously – was Adam Tomkins. The Glasgow law professor was cutting his way along from the BBC towards Better Together’s victory party in the Hilton, where the corks were already popping. Adam behaved with all the kindliness and consideration you could expect from a political opponent at their moment of victory – much more, really. The balance of the way home I spent alone, eyes stinging, bitter, sad. I turned in, and slept a dull sleep without dreams. It is only election night I’ve been unable to see through.
I’ve never known at atmosphere like the one I woke up to in Glasgow the next day. The result hung over everything. It leached all the social colour from the day. The weather provided an obligingly grim backdrop. The gloom was general. I live in the south side of the city, Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency. The Yes vote prevailed here - one of the few reassuring things about the immediate aftermath of the poll. The national picture may have been disappointing, but amid everything else, at least you read your own community correctly.
I sat in a pub. I watched Alex Salmond resign before a dumb room, eyes all fixed on the telly. A man ordered another double shot of strong liquor. A fourth pint suddenly seemed wise. And for those drinkers who quietly concluded that independence wasn’t a sure bet, who voted no? It was a scene of victory without jubilation. It must have been an odd experience. An unseen hand kept squeezing away at my throat. I made rash promises to myself that I’d never write about Scottish politics again. That I was done with it all. I might take up something wholesome like gardening instead, or skydiving. Half an hour later, I’d written this blog. It is often a painful – even embarrassing – thing to rake back over your old prose. This, at least, evoked the experience I remember.
I am not one of life's joiners, despite my partisan inclinations. I'm not a marcher. I didn't find myself, politically, during the indyref. I am a crappy and a complacent activist. An inactivist, essentially. The experience didn't transform my ideas of politics. But like many folk of my generation, it was, and remains a profoundly important - even seminal - moment from which it will be difficult to escape for some time to come. Whether or not we revisit the national question later rather than sooner, the autumn of 2014 will cast a long shadow for decades. But where are we now, two years on? Whither now, for the calculating Scottish nationalist with the long view? It has all become tremendously complicated. I wish I could see my way through it all more clearly.