Homage to Caledonia
And so it belongs to the ages: the most momentous event in the history of the United Kingdom, and certainly of Scotland, for many decades. If you can be certain of one thing at this very moment, it’s that the first versions of the history of the Scottish independence referendum are already being written. As you read these words, journalists and/or historians (or, the saddest cases of all, journalists with History degrees who secretly always wanted to be proper historians), sustained by pathetically inadequate advances from their publishers, will be hunched over their laptops and burning the midnight oil, fuelled by coffee and/or Cabernet Sauvignon, hammering out the glossily-packaged tomes that are contractually obliged to be on the shelves of airport bookshops in three months’ time.
Meanwhile, at both school and university level, chief examiners for Politics are already devising next summer’s questions, which will be recycled, albeit with slightly modified wording, for the next hundred years or so by the chief examiners for History, or at least until the next Michael Gove attains puberty (apologies to my American, Canadian and Antipodean readers; please feel free to insert instead the name of your local bete noire politico spouting utterly bonkers cod educational philosophy).
‘The intervention of Gordon Brown was crucial to the success of the No campaign. Discuss.’
‘Assess the importance of women voters in determining the outcome of the referendum.’
‘The growth of Scottish nationalism was principally a consequence of the retreat from empire. Discuss.’
And so on ad nauseam, and probably not only in History and Politics, either. Why, even chief examiners for Media Studies may be preparing to trot out something along the lines of ‘Assess the impact of “Braveheart” on the growth of Scottish support for FREEDOM!!!!, 1995-2014′. (By way of digression, on the night of the count, one guy in a bar in Greenock thought it a good idea to try and attract the barmaid’s attention by shouting ‘Freedom!’ as loudly as he could. This proved to be undoubtedly the worst impression of Mel Gibson playing William Wallace since Mel Gibson’s own. So quite rightly, he still didn’t get served.)
But you can be certain that one aspect of the referendum won’t appear in any of the books or the examination questions and answers, and that’s the story of the ‘referendum tourists’.
Yes, my friends, I mean the voyeurs who ventured north of the border, hoping to gaze upon the nakedness of broken political promises. The vampires feasting upon the blood of the poll booth virgins. The Rippers dissecting the corpses of –
OK, I’ll stop all that now.
But, gentle readers, I confess that I was one of those referendum tourists. I was one of those dining in the Restaurant at the End of the United Kingdom while the entire edifice teetered on the very brink of oblivion. I was not alone: the hotels that I stayed in, at Kirkcudbright in Galloway and Greenock on the Clyde, were full of us. Seriously, though, it was something I felt compelled to do. As those who’ve followed this blog for some time will know, I’ve always had a deep love of Scotland and a strong interest in Scottish history, as demonstrated by the fact that I spent ten years researching and writing an entire book about an aspect of it, the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ of 1600. The novelist Nigel Tranter was a major influence on my fiction, particularly on my first novel, Gentleman Captain, which was set in part on the west coast of Scotland. And as a Welshman, of course, I had rather more than a neutral’s interest in the outcome of the referendum; for whatever the result, it was bound to have profound consequences for Wales, its place in the United Kingdom and its form of government, as indeed seems to be becoming the case.
So, yes, I had to be there. I’d heard all the stories about the extraordinary levels of grass roots political commitment and heated discussions between ordinary people, so I wanted to experience some of that. But Kirkcudbright, the lovely ‘artists’ town’ whose most famous son is, perhaps ironically, John Paul Jones, the founding father of the United States Navy, provided me with a rude awakening in pretty much the first shop I went into.
‘Busy week in these parts, then,’ I said to the woman behind the counter.
‘Aye,’ she said, ‘we had a car boot sale yesterday.’
I put this down as an exception; surely I’d encountered the only person in Scotland who thought that the Kirkcudbright car boot sale was more important than the independence referendum? But no. In the pub that night, the sole topic of conversation was the same car boot sale – which had been a ‘f*****g fracas’, apparently, notably because of a shortage of toilets. I had essentially the same experience in Wigtown, Scotland’s town of books, the next day: ‘It’s frantic,’ said one shop owner, ‘we’ve got the Wigtown Book Festival next week’. And as I went around the area, it proved possible to go for mile upon mile and not actually realise a history-changing vote was about to take place. There were very few ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ signs on display, but the overwhelming majority of those that did exist were ‘No’, usually large placards in the middle of vast, rolling fields not too dissimilar to those of Bedfordshire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the one and only Conservative seat left in Scotland (the party held the majority of seats in the country as recently, in historical terms, as 1955), and the obvious inference was drawn by pretty much the solitary display of ‘Yes’ support in Kirkcudbright, a display on a street corner, which castigated the wealthy local farmers in no uncertain terms. It was, perhaps, a sign of the lack of any violent political division in the town that the ‘Yes’ display remained forlornly in situ, not defaced, not damaged, not thrown into the nearby harbour; and ultimately, Dumfries and Galloway was, unsurprisingly, one of the areas that ended up with the highest proportion of ‘No’ votes.
(The highest proportion of all came from Orkney, where we were on holiday about a month ago. Although ‘Yes’ signs were more prominent up there, it was clear that the Orcadians, who don’t regard themselves as Scottish at all, were overwhelmingly hostile to independence – unless it was their own, from Scotland, a possibility that was seriously mooted near the end of the referendum campaign – and, if asked the question on the ballot paper, might even have preferred to rejoin Norway, still debatably their legitimate overlord.)
Driving across country from Kirkcudbright to Greenock, though, things began to change. The nearer I got to the Clyde coast, the more cars I saw flying saltires (one even had its wing mirrors painted over with the white diagonal on blue of Saint Andrew), and increasingly, ‘Yes’ posters proliferated. Then I got to Largs, and all hell broke loose. I have fond memories of Largs, one of my favourite ports of call during my days as a somewhat unlikely officer in the Royal Naval Reserve (CCF), tasked with instructing cadets in the arts of seamanship (which would obviously be of great use to them in Bedfordshire, one of England’s most land-locked counties) while simultaneous undertaking a crash-course in the finer points of the appreciation of single malt whisky. But the Largs I remembered wasn’t full of happy people clutching blue and white balloons, cheering loudly if cars honked when they passed. The atmosphere was electric, and I soon learned that this was because I’d literally just missed Alex Salmond, the SNP leader and First Minister, who’d given a barnstorming speech to the ‘Yes’ hordes. In the local ‘Yes’ campaign office, the energy was palpable, and no-one questioned the right of a Welshman to wander in off the street and purloin examples of campaign material; but then, people might have been distracted by the major crisis that had just developed, namely the fact that they’d run out of balloons.
And so to Greenock, once an industrial powerhouse with remarkably broad streets named after the places it traded with (Jamaica, Madeira) or else after great politicians of the day, the intersection of Fox Street and Eldon Street being undoubtedly the only context in which those two diametrically opposed political titans of George III’s reign ever intersected with each other in any way at all. Now, sadly, large swathes of Greenock are redolent of the urban decay apparent in so many British towns, such as my own home town of Llanelli, although a sharp counterpoint to this was provided by the enormous presence of the new cruise ship Royal Princess, literally towering above much of the town; Greenock is a regular port of call on the cruise ship circuit round the British Isles (as is Kirkwall, which often had two ships a day when we were there in August), and hopefully at least a few of the well-heeled passengers contribute something to the local economy. As the vast ship sailed, on the evening before the independence vote was due to take place, a pipe band on the quayside serenaded her with the likes of Highland Cathedral and Flower of Scotland. Would these prove to be the anthems of a new independent nation, and would this blog have to be retitled A Farewell to Caledonia?
Polling day: strangely quiet, at least where I was, with steady streams of voters striding purposefully towards polling stations. The thing that struck me was the good humour of it all, with family and friendship groups evidently turning it into a social occasion, cheerily saying hello to people they knew on the way in or out, while sixteen or seventeen year old schoolkids, having voted for the first time, proudly carried away their polling cards as souvenirs. And I couldn’t help thinking: this is the way democracy should be, not the turgid, unloved exercise it’s become throughout so much of the western world (and which, for my sins, I taught for several years, trying and failing to interest the exact contemporaries of those enthusiastic students in the delights of electoral systems and, ironically, devolution).
If I wanted any more proof, it came in the pub that evening. I deliberately sought out a down-to-earth, old fashioned town centre boozer, where I could listen in to the conversation. Unfortunately, there was one fundamental flaw in my strategy: I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time in the area for about twenty years, and had forgotten just how impenetrable the accent around the Clyde estuary can be. I couldn’t understand a word. But luckily, my saviours arrived in the shape of two garrulous and already distinctly ‘merry’ individuals, both probably in their sixties, who sat themselves down next to me with their pints and whisky chasers (this was at about 6 o’clock…) in order to watch the Celtic match. My heart sank. Was I going to be subjected to a barrage of incomprehensible abuse when they found I didn’t particularly support the Bhoys? (Not for any sectarian reasons, or because I’m Welsh and a rugby man; when it comes to Scottish football, and for reasons that are far too obscure to air here, I’ve always supported the mighty Stenhousemuir, despite never having seen them play. But I have been to their stadium.)
Not a bit of it. To my amazement, they launched into an animated discussion of – wait for it – the Barnett formula, bandying about national economic statistics with the confidence of Robert Peston, albeit with the deployment of rather more f-bombs than Pesto is wont to employ, at least in his pieces to camera. Even more remarkable, they were more engrossed in what was actually a remarkably sophisticated political argument than in the game they were meant to be watching – even to the extent of not realising that Celtic had scored their first goal until after it happened. After about 10 minutes, too, I was able to follow rather more than just every other word, and by now, my friends had moved on to economic globalisation – although they tended not to use that term, preferring to refer to ‘the f*****g Chinese’. The two extraordinary things about this were that the two, quite evidently very old friends and drinking cronies, were on opposite sides of the debate, and sitting next to them – sitting, in fact, in the midst of what was evidently a strongly ‘Yes’ clientele – was a man wearing a Union Jack t-shirt and a ‘No’ badge on the lapel of his jacket. But he, too, was engrossed in the Celtic match, and there was not a hint of malice anywhere in the bar. Whether that was still the case at 10 or 11 in the evening might have been a different matter, but I was long gone by then. To be exact, I was long gone to an Italian restaurant which was offering a special of the day: ‘Chicken Referendum’, no less, which apparently included haggis. It was tempting, but I had a pizza instead.
The morning of the result, which was announced on the BBC, just after 6, by fellow Llanelli Grammar School alumnus Huw Edwards: a first reaction of disappointment, both on behalf of those of my friends who had fought so hard for a Yes vote, and also, I suspect, on behalf of my much younger self, the idealistic student member of Plaid Cymru back in the 1970s; followed in fairly close order by a feeling of no doubt selfish relief, that so many of the certainties I’d known all my life hadn’t disappeared overnight. I decided to take a train into Glasgow to see what was happening there, and was barely out of Central Station before I spied a huge scrum of angry young men. My heart quickened. Might this be the last stand of the Yes supporters, a new Culloden, no less? No: it was the queue trying to get into the Glasgow Apple Store to buy the iPhone 6. Sic transit gloria mundi. I cut through George Square, where a few forlorn saltires were being waved limply by a half-dozen or so diehards, seriously outnumbered by the number of foreign TV crews around the square. (This was several hours before the evening’s brief but nasty sectarian spat in the same space.) But in many respects Glasgow, which had voted ‘Yes’ by a large margin, was already a city that had reverted to normal, as though the past few weeks and years had never happened. Tourists were wandering around the cathedral, students pulling bulging suitcases were trying to find their digs, and shoppers were thronging the likes of the St Enoch centre. Sic transit gloria Thursday.
The afternoon brought news of Alex Salmond’s resignation, which no doubt would have delighted my ‘No’ friend from the pub the night before, who’d referred to the First Minister as a ‘f*****g pompous wee bastard’. The same sentiment was aired by the shop assistant who served me the next day, when I stopped at Thornhill in the Borders on my drive south. I bought a copy of The Scotsman, the front page of which consisted of a large photograph of a miserable Salmond, and the assistant pointed at it gleefully, saying ‘Tee hee,’ (trust me, he really, really did say ‘tee, hee’), ‘that’s the best result of this whole independence thing’.
It was a privilege to be in Scotland for the ‘whole independence thing’. As for the consequences, for good or ill, the fallout from the referendum looks set fair to drag the British constitution and, perhaps, at least some of the British political elite, kicking and screaming, into the, umm, nineteenth century. I only hope that just a fraction of the enthusiasm and involvement that I witnessed spills over into England and Wales, and produces similar results: but somehow, I think that might be an uphill struggle, as the blatant political posturing from the Westminster parties since the result was declared undoubtedly demonstrates. Still, Scotland might not have resumed its place in the world as a sovereign nation (yet…?), but surely it’s proved that there is a different way of doing things, that it is possible to engage ordinary people in politics, that in a democracy, every vote really can count. At the very least, too, it’s proved that if you’re allowed to marry and have a child at the age of sixteen, you’re more than qualified to have a vote at the same age, and any argument to the contrary is simply perverse. Dare one suggest, too, that if we really do have a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union in the foreseeable future – and surely the unexpected closeness of the Scottish result will make the Westminster elite even more determined than ever to ensure that it never happens – then we might see the same degree of engagement throughout the component nations of that peculiar, anachronistic, but still somehow functioning, political union as we’ve seen in Scotland? Might I be able to go into my local pub and witness heated, but still amicable, discussion between old friends about the merits of majority voting on European budgetary issues – and one that’s not based simply on idiotic tabloid headlines?
Somehow, I doubt it. But I really hope I’m proved wrong!