Having studied political science, I was positively giddy when I learned that I’d be living in Scotland during the Scottish Referendum. I may or may not have squealed a little when I learned that I was eligible to vote.
But this was no ordinary vote, rather possibly the most important moment in Scottish history since the Act of Union. Perhaps this is why the Yes and No campaigns succeeded in that one thing that has long-eluded politicians in Canada and the United States: meaningful political engagement with voters. Despite the presence of the same old political tactics, mud-slinging, “exaggerated” claims and passionate speeches, people of all ages and all regions were becoming involved. As September 18th drew closer, the atmosphere became increasingly tense. By the registration deadline, 97% of eligible voters had registered to vote. Whether I was walking to class or stopping for a kebab on the way home from the pub, people were talking about the referendum.
Locals eagerly shared their views with visitors and, when learning that I was registered to vote, spent their time trying to convince me to vote their way. Colin the bus driver, a rather enthusiastic Yes supporter, even offered the flawless argument that, “you lot left the UK and you’s pretty happy with yourselves aren’t ya?” This public debate grew more and more intense as the date drew closer.
In the lead-up to the vote, the Yes side was clearly playing the emotional card, speaking passionately about the greatness of Scotland and how Scotland could control its future. They were open, positive, and engaging, benefiting from the support of grass-roots groups and maintaining a highly-public image in the community. The No campaign was, by contrast, much more negative. They played on fear while also raising legitimate questions about Scotland’s economy. They were also much more patronizing, releasing ads like the now-famous “Ignorant Mother” advert, telling Scots that they were unlikely to understand the debate and should therefore vote “No”.
The day of the referendum was a strange combination of tense and calm (the two people representing the Yes and No campaigns outside my polling station were leaned against the wall idly chatting about the weather). The polling stations in the suburbs were much quieter, with voters bringing their families for what was a historic event. Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, on the other hand, was already exploding with national pride and party vibes as early as 10am. At first, there were few Saltire flags and even fewer Union Jacks to be found. The bulk of the crowd was actually made up of separatists from Sardinia, Corsica, Catalonia, and the Basque Country, waving their respective flags and brandishing signs that read slogans such as “Sardinia is not Italy, Scotland is Not England” and “Catalans for Yes”. This show of solidarity reflected the true impact of the referendum, with implications far beyond the borders of Scotland. It was a rarely given chance to secede in a democratic, peaceful way.
As the hours went by, more and more people poured into the Royal Mile and to the Scottish Parliament where rallies were well under way. Throngs of tourists went by taking pictures of the activists while the media took it all in. At the Parliament building, it appeared as though the Yes side would certainly win. The small contingent of No supporters were easily shouted-down and drowned-out by bagpipes and the Scottish anthem. Throughout the crowd, people shared in one thing: hope.
In the end the No side won out, resulting in many shed tears among the then-hungover Yes supporters (myself among them). But this did not end the referendum question. Even as life began to return to normal in Edinburgh, people could still be heard talking about how the vote went and what it means for Scotland’s future. If anything, the Scottish Referendum was just the beginning. Discussions now consider what will Scotland’s relationship with Westminster look like post-referendum. People all across the UK have begun to re-think and discuss the role and powers of Westminster in local politics.
One thing is certain, the Scottish Referendum has sparked national discussion and engagement on the role of government and the result of this vote will, in the long-term, have major impacts well-beyond the borders of the now-decisively-United Kingdom.
Banner photograph by Jessica Thornton