Reflections on the revolution in Scotland

No Thanks and Yes signs

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.

15 thoughts on “Reflections on the revolution in Scotland

  1. gohebydd

    This is an interesting and well written piece. However I don’t accept the criticism that this referendum has been divisive. As you yourself note, the hostility towards Tories north of the border would suggest that general elections are equally divisive – is that a reason not to hold them? Democrats and Republicans in the US are regularly at each other’s throats, but I’ve never seen it suggested that the Presidential election shouldn’t be held. It seems that the only elections that are branded ‘divisive’ by unionists are those that may led to an outcome they may not like.

    I’d also argue that it’s not socialism that the people of Scotland wish to escape, but rather an over-centralised political system that (from their pov) doesn’t really care about their wellbeing.

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  3. Tom

    An excellent article. Not sure about “so let down by socialism that they genuinely see independence as a route out” however – many of those voting Yes believe they will be creating some type of socialist utopia as far as I can see.

  4. Jonathan Glover

    Hi Nick. About your comment “If I was quadruply compromised – Tory, Southern, English and a little posh”; I believe you, like moi, have actually been quadruply blessed!

  5. Councillor John Charles

    Hi Nick,
    I too did some canvassing and manned a stand in Kirkwall in the Orkneys and the comments were all positive and I am sure from the people I talked too that the No vote will win. I was made welcome by all and even had the secretary of state for Scotland with us and no anti Tory Hostility
    A great experience working with all three mayor parties with one aim. here’s hoping for a good result

  6. Alan, Edinburgh

    Well done, great article. You are welcome back in Edinburgh any time, I do hope you won’t need a passport. What the hell has happened to your party? Whose idea was it to keep a low profile? Are there no one nation tories left?

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  8. Richard Baum

    A great piece, passionate and well written. I share all of your sentiments, your anger and sadness, with only one exception.

    You say that people have been ‘let down by socialism’ but offer no evidence that it’s socialism that’s let them down. Time and again we’ve heard that, actually, they crave a more progressive, more socialist government and that actually it’s dislike of conservatism (small c), neo-liberalism and the ubiquity of capitalist dogma in the political parties.

    It’s sad that despite feeling so sad and angry, and despite articulating it so well, you fall at the last into the type of evidence-light name-calling which has turned so many people away from the UK. Some more humility and the consideration of a different way would have been nice, and if done earlier may have saved a lot of angst in this campaign.


  10. Charlotte Jones

    As an 18 year old girl with the majority of my family living in Scotland, I have been following the debate very carefully. I spent three weeks there recently working on the estates, waving flags at birds so that the the rich could shoot them down. There was no resentment whilst we worked for these ‘aristocrats’, many of them being English, Swedish and French, and I never had any comments made about my nationality, which I was wary about when I first started after someone said it was better I was leaving before the referendum otherwise my head may end up on a pike at the border! In those weeks I obviously met a lot of Scottish people, and it surprised me that these big belting men in their traditional tweed were against leaving Britain. They were however, all in agreement that something had to change.
    I have always known that Scotland has wanted to look after its people. You only have to see the welfare system they have, to realise that they put home affairs first. My family moved up there because they thought their children would have a better education, with reduced fees. They benefit from free prescriptions and eye tests. My gran benefits from free bus transport, so whenever she visits us, she does not have to pay a penny until she gets to the border. As an English girl who is about to start university and wrack up a debt of £50k, I have, rather regretabbly and ashamedly, thought, what do they have to moan about? If anyone should leave Britain it should be England, we seem to have the worst deal!
    That’s when I realised that its not only Scotland’s governing system that needs to change, but the whole of it. If Scotland does stay, I’d like to see changes made throughout the country, not just in Scotland because I think that a lot of what the Scottish people want to see changed, is also what the English want too. The majority of us don’t want bedroom tax, privatisation of the healthcare, offensive foreign policy or nuclear weapons. But do we get a say? Do the government realise that we are not all politically apathetic? The number of people voting in the general election is decreasing because there is no party that can keep their promises and listen to the people, not because we don’t care. The distrust in politicians is only growing, and it will be interesting in the general elections, next year, how things pan out.
    Your piece was very interesting, but what is going to change after this referendum? You’ve said that the government has failed, but what about the future? I think it is evident that our broken system needs to be reformed, it’s needed it since before I was born, even before my parents met. I don’t know much of the world, but this is for sure, it is one darn complicated place for someone my age to make a difference.


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  15. Dave Clews

    Nick – well done for going to Scotland. It seems the silent (or the silenced) majority won. The English (and the Welsh and NI) debate will now rise. I’m all for equally devolved countries and a federal style of government like Germany but we have to maintain a strong union. All political parties seem to have lost what really matters to people on the geound. Instead, they follow their own in-bred policies. Scotland proves we are interested in politics but not the current style – now is the time for a sea change in how the parties see things. I admire you as a local MP but i cannot say my politics are really blue, nor red nor orange for that matter. There is a danger that UKIP may take advantage but they are a one-policy party. I believe we must still have immigration but more tightly controlled.,i also beleive we are better off in Europe but more on our own terms – fight from within. I’m afraid the Tories have got to position themselves as more a peoples party and not one that always seems to supports business and the priviliged. Those times I believe are gone.
    I didnt vote for you at the last election but I’ve since seen how you get around the constituency, supporting all manner of local causes and meeting the peope, working hard at communicating. You’ve even popped round to support my local gliding club. Thats all impressed me so i shall vote for you next year but i really want the Tories to listen to and act on the English debate happening outside of Westminster.


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