We weren’t meant to go. I mean, no-one actually said ‘please don’t’, but the vibe was unmistakeable. Please go to Clacton where there’ll be a by-election. Have a great recess and maybe even see you at the Party Conference. But don’t go to Scotland.
To be fair, we were asked to telephone canvass, I suppose on the basis that if Scots voters could only hear our Tory tones, and not see our blazers, old school ties and raspberry cords, the Union would be safer.
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I’d written a local column about the break-up of the three century-old Union. I’d talked passionately about our shared history. I’d said it was the most important political event for a generation. And so the logic became inescapable. I had to get there to help. If I was quadruply compromised – Tory, Southern, English and a little posh – I just wouldn’t open my mouth.
I arrived at the ‘Better Together’ campaign office in Edinburgh to find dozens of volunteers who felt the same way. Many had taken days off from work to lend a hand. A young guy from Yorkshire said he couldn’t face the prospect of the Union being broken and not being able to say what he’d done to try and prevent it. There were lots of young Scots who worked in London but had come home to campaign. They wondered if they’d feel welcome in their country in future.
But most of the volunteers were locals. One Edinburgh resident told me he’d come to help after his house was vandalised because he had a ‘no’ poster in his window. He’d never engaged in political activity before, but was now determined to get involved. They’d carved the word ‘coward’ on his door at night, oblivious to the irony of their anonymous crime.
We went down to Leith to canvass voters who were still undecided or had said they’d vote ‘no’. There was a sea of ‘yes’ posters in the windows. A nationalist stall was doing a brisk trade. As we got out of our cars, a few passers-by, infused with Mr Salmond’s changey-hopey spirit, yelled abuse. God, I thought, this doesn’t look good.
Then we began to knock on doors in the tenement blocks. A few people, incredibly, still hadn’t made up their minds. But the ‘no’ vote seemed to be holding up. Some of the ‘don’t knows’ had even come to us. Time and time again, we were thanked for being there, or delivered a sad rebuke for the campaign’s relative invisibility. ‘You lot have been really absent – the others have been here the whole time’, said one young woman.
One man told us that people were scared to reveal themselves as ‘no’ voters. The day before, he’d seen a ‘no’ campaigner screamed at by a furious resident, accusing him of being a ‘Tory quisling’. My fellow canvasser queried the word. ‘Aye, you know, the Norwegian fella’, he said with some surprise.
In the town centre, an unsmiling campaigner handed me an official ‘yes’ leaflet urging me to vote for independence to keep the Tories out forever. We briefly took up a rival position nearby. It was impossible to tell, from their looks, which way people might vote. But they started to come up to express their support, some wanting stickers to declare it, others surreptitiously taking pamphlets or stealing a wink of approval.
A reporter from Hong Kong and a Swedish TV crew followed us around, utterly bemused by events. A woman burst out of a block of flats to ask us where the ‘no’ shop was to counter the ‘yes’ store on the corner. ‘How does this compare with your constituency?’, asked a fellow campaigner as we walked down the familiarly-named South Sloan Street. ‘It’s not quite the same’, I replied, deciding not to mention Arundel Castle or its English Duke.
Two men wearing ‘Aye’ and ‘Fuck Aye’ blue t-shirts, the latter by now beginning to represent my view (with a more literal emphasis), passed us on the way to the pub. A group of obviously drunk men at the door shouted something totally incomprehensible but definitely abusive. As we hurried by, one of them ran after us to grab a leaflet, quietly signalling his support. I gained entry to a pitch dark corridor in a tenement block and felt my way up the staircase. ‘Piss off’, a menacing voice said from above, before I could say which side I was calling from.
On the way out I talked to a couple of young Spaniards who were having a cigarette. They’d come over to work in Edinburgh and had jobs in a bar. I thought of Nigel Farage. I asked if they had a vote. No, they said, they weren’t registered, but thought they shouldn’t vote anyway. I asked how they’d vote if they had to. ‘I’m Basque’, said one, with a smile.
An Eastern European guy ran to catch up with me on the street. ‘I hate nationalism’, he said, ‘It’s terrible’. He was upset because someone had told him he’d have to change the faded union logo on his rucksack after Thursday. ‘The UK is such a great country’, he said. ‘Why can’t people see it?’
This was a Labour-held parliamentary constituency in which the SNP claimed less than 10 per cent of the vote at the last general election. I wondered where all the pro-Union Labour activists were. Some of our team were bitter that, earlier in the campaign, the message had come down from Scotland’s Labour hierarchy not to adopt a high profile. While volunteers soldiered away on the ground, Westminster’s complacent Labour leadership had let them down.
All around us, the ‘yes’ side had appropriated the Saltire and the message of change. The ‘no’ side hadn’t wanted to feature the emblem of the United Kingdom. Alone in Princes Street, a determined looking elderly gentleman waved a large Union flag to appreciative passers-by. Nearby, a banner urged a ‘yes’ vote for an independent socialist Scotland. Two huge bill-boards, separated by an advert for toiletries, summed up the campaign. ‘Don’t risk your pound, pay, pension’ declared a gloomy ‘no’ message. ‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’ enthused the ‘yes’ poster.
The campaign strategies appeared to differ in other ways, too, ‘yes’ making their presence felt in the streets, ‘no’ canvassing with targeted precision. Our team leader, a charismatic young volunteer, had been going since the early morning. We headed back to the campaign office to recharge our canvass sheets and grab some junk food. The room was teeming with activists. One startled us by announcing that Nick Robinson had been fired for challenging Alex Salmond. I checked twitter hurriedly. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘Oh yes’, she insisted. The First Minister was clearly the only thing she disliked more than the Corporation.
It isn’t just the nation that’s divided. We canvassed houses with split loyalties. ‘We’re all voting ‘no’, except for my son’, said one reflective father. ‘We’ve lost him’. I wondered how the country would heal in the event of a narrow vote one way or the other.
On the way back to London, where the train passes over the river Tweed at Berwick, I remembered that I’d once – nearly twenty years ago – delivered a speech on the Union Bridge which links England and Scotland to warn that the United Kingdom was at risk. I wonder if I really thought, at the time, that it could break.
Whatever happens today, we face a separation of a kind, to use the marital metaphor which already seems weary and is certainly not big enough to reflect the enormity of this decision. Until now English nationalism has been dormant. Now it’s poised to rise with a vengeance. My inbox has filled with e-mails from constituents demanding that, if Scotland stays, England will be treated fairly.
Mostly I feel a great sadness. It’s the second time in a year that I’ve been deeply troubled by a democratic decision, the last being the vote in the House of Commons not to take military action against Syria after its use of chemical weapons. But this event seems bigger even, and potentially far more damaging, than the shameful loss of resolve in our foreign policy.
And now I also feel dismay. Dismay that we’ve somehow, carelessly, let this happen. Dismay that our broken politics might now break the United Kingdom. Dismay – no, anger – that the people without hope on those council estates have been so let down by socialism that they genuinely see independence as a route out.
Nothing, nothing, has mattered more in my nine years as an MP, or for that matter in my lifetime. And I was expected to go and buy ice creams in Clacton.