I can remember the eve of the 1992 general election. I was working in the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, and confidence was building in how the vote was going to go. Lorna Davidson, our tireless officer (geez, I can’t even remember what her job title was…but it was the most invaluable one, bar none) was talking to me happily about the coming coalition. I looked back at her, and said ‘It isn’t going to be a coalition’. Although she heard my words, she missed my look, and said ‘I know, but I keep trying to tell myself not to think about that, about getting a Labour government.’ I looked at her and gently said ‘I didn’t mean a Labour majority.’ She blanched, shut down, and went away shaking her head – at the time, I thought she was angry, as she muttered ‘no way, no way’ – but I think I probably had uttered such a horrific concept, that it offended her: the idea that we could live in such a world where Such Things could happen.
I took no pleasure at all in being the only person in that extremely politically active office that correctly predicted the result of that election. I remember writing an editorial in the wake of that result, and for some reason I could only think of a quote from Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ to sum up how I was feeling: “The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.” Sometimes…you just get a feeling, on the street.
Fast forward to the deathly quiet on the streets of Edinburgh on the 19th. I was out strolling, to pick up a prescription. I couldn’t help thinking that I should try and put in a bulk order, as prescription charges will soon be coming back in. The streets seemed deserted – very few people visible, let alone conversing. There had been a death in the family – that mythical ‘family of nations’, perhaps.
In spite of how I’d been feeling about the way the campaign was going, this didn’t really appear to surprise me. There had been a couple of odd moments where I had realized that, although the script was good, there were a few near misses that meant it was not a fairy tale…which implied the fairy tale ending might not be coming either. Perhaps that was what was bugging me when I said ‘of course, we won’t get Edinburgh’ (I still don’t know what the percentage vote was here) – and even the ending of my last blog post seems scarily prescient. In a strange way, I remember feeling that with regard to the misattribution of the Magnus Gardham piece in the Herald last Saturday. It made me realize that – yes, in the fairy tale ending, Magnus does see the error of his ways (even if he just wrote it because he wanted to be on the winning side) and makes that sudden declaration for Yes. But for that online piece to be misattributed to him…that is a story that has a different ending.
The day of the vote had been eerily quiet. The grey weather may well not have helped my mood – as people pointed out to me, that upbeat optimism on a sunny day might make a difference in how people vote – but as I stood outside the Polwarth polling station, the overcast clouds, the wind gently blowing hosts of leaves down around us, it felt like the first day of autumn. I had the urge to start quoting ‘O season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’ – and thought, ‘John Keats? How inappropriate’.
Inappropriate for one narrative, perhaps.
I didn’t actually watch the results shows – again, odd (and yet the prospect of a last splurge of Union-skewed broadcasting was strangely unappetising). Even more unusually, I did not take up the offer of meeting up with the rest of the campaign group. In fact, I went to bed, and lay there with the laptop, as people started to message me the results as they came in via FaceBook and GChat. My first reaction was that the turnouts seemed lower than we had expected – which was not a great sign. I started screwing up my gaze at the list of constituencies…inevitably reading across from them to the scale of the SNP lead or loss there in Holyrood, as a marker of some degree of receptivity to the idea of an independent Scotland, if nothing more than that. There were a few wobbles in the percentages, but it still looked possible (thank you Dundee)…until the collapse in Stirling. Thirty to forty thousand votes down, in the home of the council that dreamed up the hosting of Armed Forces Day as a direct opposition to Bannockburn 700, the council that wanted to stop flying the saltire – how appropriate. For one narrative.
Of course, we are less than 24 hours into Gordon Brown’s ‘exciting timetable’, and the first target has already failed to be met. Miliband has opted out of Cameron’s devolution plans, and is setting up his own commission aimed at – guess what? – devolving power from Holyrood down to the district city and regional councils that Labour still controls many of. [‘I told you so.’]
What? So now we have to systematically get rid of Labour from there, as well?
Cameron has already said that delivering a Scotland Act before the general election would be ‘meaningless’ – so that’s gone, too. Jack Straw is writing that the Union should be made indissoluble in law, so no more votes ever. [‘I told you so.’]
Apparently it was the over 55s that lost it for us – some 73% supposedly voting ‘No’, around 560,000 of the 800,000 postal votes, most of which are part of this demographic (and a stark contrast to the 71% of the much smaller demographic of 16-17 year olds that voted ‘Yes’). The irony of a group of people voting that way because the former Prime Minister that destroyed the private pension scheme in the UK (and oversaw the UK’s state pension decline to the worst in Europe) might have scared them that their state pensions (already-guaranteed by the Home Office) were at risk, is a bitter one indeed. I find it hard to find other reasons why they would have voted that way – it is unlikely that, as a group, they all wish their children and grandchildren to be in penury…and can delusions from the Telegraph really have made them that upset about the war? Certainly the ‘over 55’ that I live with has been inarticulate in her defence of her decision – and as much as I can (scandalously) take out my disappointment and anger on her, I know that it was my failure to reach her that resulted in her mistake.
Whatever – we didn’t reach them as we should have: the ‘silver surfers’ are too few in number to make an internet-informed difference in that demographic of some 900,000 yet, and although the surfers will be a far greater number in any subsequent vote, we still need an approach that can get past that. What makes me saddest is the coming wave of health decline and mass emigration – it is hard to see how that can be avoided from happening again (as it did after 1979): as much as I would hope that people can believe for a little longer that we can get something out of this, just by the speed at which the mendacity of Westminster looks to be falling apart, I find it hard to imagine people sticking around much longer. We were already running out of time, with balancing the books on a declining budget, and I can’t see that that can continue much longer.
The benefits from Holyrood’s different way will be lost, the Parliament neutered.
The vague reports of civil unrest are spreading – just as with the signing in 1707. I cannot say that I blame them, and it is exactly what I expected – I just don’t have the energy to participate.
I remember meeting someone who was a probable ‘No’ voter on one of the last days – ex-army, with his Filipino civil partner at his side, he told me that things were not bad enough to justify ending the Union. If one is comfortable, it is easy to say ‘I do not think the Union has been so bad’ – if you don’t see or hear about how things have changed for everyone else, you might be comfortable enough (especially if you have bought into the recent media campaign to criminalise the poor) to think that, and look no further. But the context and the society within which you are ‘comfortable’ is changing: you will not remain so well-insulated forever…and really, is it all just about ‘I’m alright, Jack’? Of course, one cannot push that angle in conversation with someone you are trying to reach, so instead I asked him to go away and think about one thing: what are your criteria for ending the Union, if this is not enough? Put another way: if not now, then when? The Union cannot last forever, no matter how sentimentally it is spoken of (and we can take issue with those sentiments another time) – it is a fact that it will cease to exist one day, either split or subsumed within something greater (for yes, there are many things greater than the United Kingdom – an independent Scotland would very likely have been one of them), that this will not simply be a permanent relationship beyond Death. So, given the nuclear weapons, the increasing poverty, the redirection of our natural wealth, the emigration as opportunities fail, the declining health without a sense of any control over our own lives…how much worse do things have to get, before you accept that it is time up on the Union?
“There are 250,000 children living in poverty in Scotland. That’s a moral outrage and economic stupidity.” (Jim Sillars)