18 September 2016

19th September, 2014

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.


  1. You've been a long time with that.
    My worst memories are two: at Ingliston watching braying, bebraced London imports crowing, and keeping smiling, smiling, in the face of defeat. And the loyalist mob attacking people in George Sq. Two things I don't believe I will ever forgive.

  2. After Clackmannan I went to bed and, later, woke to a new, bleaker, day. I read Robin McAlpine's 'Wipe your eyes. On your feet. Pick up your stuff. Let's get started' - a phrase which resounded from every exhausting hill walk I've ever done. I've not much time for Robin's windier flights of prose, but that quadruple hammer said what was needed.

  3. Cameron outside number 10. The tossers in George Square.

    The Scotland Bill. Brexit means Brexit.

    Nigel Farage skinnydipping. Siobhan McFadyen.

    We'll win the next one.

    1. Courage my friends. Take heart at small mercies and victories. September 2014 was a real downer but think of the night and following morning of the 2015 General Election: watching the hope and political futures of the SLAB, Lib Dem and Scottish Tory scuzz being crushed.

  4. I entirely sympathise, good sir. That day will live long in the memory for me. I stuck around until the result was official at my friend's flat in Partick, although I confess one too many whiskies makes the eventual confirmation of defeat hard to recall. But the day after? The grim certainty that this was a low moment not only in my life, but in the lives of everyone around me? It's hard to shake that, even knowing as I did that I wouldn't be around to endure the consequences of it the way you, my friends, and so many other Scots would.

    Unlike yourself, I confess I did wholly disengage from Scottish politics, and from Scotland itself emotionally for quite a while. It was too hard to imagine a Scotland that could emerge from a No vote that I could hold close to my heart even as I already felt a relentless American tug on my heartstrings. While I read your stuff assiduously, and even dipped into the Rev. Campbell's musings too, it took Brexit and the shocking splash to the face it gave even to those Americans who knew my feelings on the subject to properly re-engage me. I'm not sure I'll ever get over my fear that we might lose again, that I might feel like that again, but given the twin catastrophe that is the Brexit-Trump movement unfolding in western democracy right now, I have clung to Scotland again as a ray of hope in a dark, depressing world right now.

    I'm not entirely sure that you intended this post to provoke confessional outporeings, but I thought I'd share mine. Between you and me (and your readers), I think my Americanization between 2014 and 2016 is irreversible, but I can at least say that I am once again hopeful for you, my friends, and everyone else in Scotland that all is not, perhaps, entirely lost.

  5. As an enforced expat with part-time employement commitments I could not get in the thick of matters in 2014 but I did volunteer just before the referendum date to help out one local group in Edinburgh (one of the leafier suburbs). Despite the cheers and waves of those in buses passing by the Indy shop and encouraging chats with pedestrians it seemed clear that Edinburgh was essentially conservative with a small c and not going to vote Yes. The final referendum outcome was what I expected, especially after numerous discussions with individuals of varying persuasions and being exposed to the BBC while staying with my brother in law and sister for a week (both unfailing Express readers and No/Brexit voters). I'm still working on them but don't expect any change as they are 'hard' no voters, very set in their ways - they have no arguments in favour of their viewpoint, simply a fearfully blunt 'We're not going to change'. It's a defensive viewpoint that is likely to flip overnight if I can find the right 'trigger', most probably via getting their children to take a more overt interest in politics and their future.

    The BBC and other media I believe have 'shot their bolt'. Whatever they do currrently and in future is and will be questioned; though they might hold on to their votes, they will not convert many to their cause. I am therefore much more optimistic about the outcome of IndyRef2. So much so that I'll be taking a much more active part when it really kicks off now that I have retired.

    I find it reassuring that Yes went from 28 to plus 50 then back despite there being very little in the way of pro Yes organisation at the start of the campaign and having to cope with a mendacious and powerful No campaign. Now there are numerous groups champing at the bit, new visual, audio and printed media, new apps/sources of info, and a much better financed SNP with many more supporters and activists than in 2012-2014.

    Despite the vast array of complicating factors thrown up by Brexit and the disarray/splits in the UK political parties it will be a brave person who will put money on the certainty of Yes losing again even though they will undoubtedly be up against ferocious opposition from vested interests.

    Many individuals still remain to be convinced that their future will be best served by an independent Scotland (whether within or outwith the EU). Their beliefs and fears will be strongly supported by the MSM and some means have to be found to counter the MSM bias and encourage a more accurate set of beliefs in those likely to dither.
    The requisite influence will most probably arise from personal communications between friends and acquaintances and within families rather than inspirational speeches, rallies and PR campaigns. If a small proportion of these are succesful the result of IndyRef2 will definitely not be in doubt.

    I'll be treating my brother in law as a bellwether. If he 'flips', then it will be like dominoes falling over.

  6. It seems a long time ago now, and yet yesterday as well. On the plus side, I have 2 daughters who will vote 'yes' next time and who firmly, if not violently, were aghast that they had no chance to vote no as they were too young then. That's brexit for you.
    They've very quickly reached the point where they ' don't understand why we aren't independent already.
    So that's the future!

  7. I have a relative who is totally uninterested in politics and was vehemently anti independence, voting No in 2014. The day after Brexit she stated just as determinedly that she was voting Yes next time and she hasn't deviated from that since.

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  9. When the intention to hold a referendum was announced I thought it was a colossal mistake. I thought we would lose. I was right, we did lose, but it was not a mistake - it galvanised all that is best in the Independence movement and we did not lose by that much, just a couple of hundred thou' votes the other way would have swung it.

    But I was greatly disappointed, even a little depressed, and angry, very angry. I'm still angry. Not with the No voters, although I cannot understand how my generation, the post-war baby-boomers could be so self-satisifiedly complacent in their comfortable retirement (or at least many of them are) and so sure that the prospect of an indefinite Tory future (blue or pink) was what would be best for Scotland.

    No, I'm angry with the professional No campaigners, Darling, Brown, Cameron, the media, especially the BBC, the apparatchiks like Macpherson, Carney, captains of industry and the rest who lied, and lied again to frighten, intimidate, to make false promises they had no intention of keeping. It was like a gigantic version of liar Carmichael with a grotesque John Bull face spewing forth bile knowing that because it was "politics" it was ok - there would be no come-back. The NO campaign crystallised all that is despicable and corrupt about the UK polity, symbolised by the one time socialist revolutionary Darling now reaping his reward in the second largest non-elected legislative chamber in the world. How do these hypocrites sleep at night? But, I don't hate them, I despise them.

    Now, a momentum is building and hope rises over fear once again. This time we have to make it count.

  10. Andrew, as a No voter (then and now) that reaction of Curran's makes me cringe. I was above all exhausted on Sept 19, if there was any emotion it was just relief. It should be remembered that this was a referendum that half the country had not sought and more than half ended up rejecting - many of us felt we had been put through an ordeal we were not seeking. The ugly scenes in Glasgow and the crowing of Labour politicians, no doubt still under the illusion they were powerful at that point, was from my view atypical of 'No' voters' reactions. Sorry to play devil's advocate, but given the exuberance of the Yes side in the run up to the vote, I can't help but think had the result gone the other way the 'No' side would have been accorded little courtesy. I concede this is hypothetical, of course.

    Perhaps I have too much faith in the power of rhetoric but it is a true shame that when we reflect on 19 September there is no great speech from one of our political leaders we can recall. What a chance for Cameron to reach across to those 45% who had voted against the union he headed up, to heal some rifts. I'd seen the same decent 'Yes' campaigners knocking on the same doors as us for weeks - they were hurting on Sept 19 and some genuine attempt to acknowledge that never came. Instead we got narrow self-interest from the PM. Twas ever thus with him.

    I have a different view to you on the 'national question' but enjoy your writing very much. Indeed one of the great outcomes of the ref was the proliferation of new voices into the debate - has Scottish political discourse ever been so varied, diverse and noisy? It's often infuriating but it's great, frankly. Til the next time...

    1. Actually, it may not have been as atypical of No voters as you'd like to think. The only referendum related violence I came across was a lovely chap in a very large dual cab pick-up who deliberately tried to wreck a Yes counter and run down the volunteers manning it in a small Borders town. In addition the really nasty stuff I came across on-line on the more mainstream-ish media came from No voters. A lot of the material in the Mail, Express, Telegraph and the Scotsman was absolutely disgraceful.

  11. I was reading this blog a lot around that time, and I was struck by the sheer incommensurability of our respective experiences. I did not think that I would have any emotional reaction to the result at all, but, in the days afterwards, I felt a dazzling sense of relief. I struggled to communicate this to people at the time; indeed, I probably offended people by trying to.

    As a man of the Enlightenment, I favour a dry, unlibidinous politics, like a discourse between moral computers. I distrusted my emotional response and maybe I should have brought it up with my psychoanalyst. Is my id, with all that's on its plate, also aware of the Union?

  12. "But where are we now, two years on?"
    A wee while back you suggested a debate on the economy of an independent Scotland was needed. No-one replied. That is where we still are.

    The media mob declared Hilary Clinton the winner last night.I'm not so sure. Donald Trump said exactly what he would do to create jobs. There are many outside the media for whom this means much. Few politicians want to talk about the economy, and Nicola Sturgeon is definitely in the majority there, alongside Hilary.

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