The counting had not even started, the result remained a mystery, but the party got under way on the streets of Edinburgh from early evening yesterday. They danced and they sang and they hugged.
utside the magnificent Scottish parliament and the queen’s neighbouring Holyrood palace, under the craggy hill of Arthur’s seat, and all along the Royal Mile, this felt like a city on the threshold of history.
No matter what the result, things will never be the same again. The genie has been released from the bottle, and not even a political magician will be able to return it.
Seldom has a political campaign held a country in the grip of such intensity.
By the time the Scots went to the polls at 7am yesterday, one sensed that the finer details of economics, taxation and social policy did not really matter. This was a campaign about raw emotion. But on the streets of Edinburgh it was mostly good-humoured.
I met a young Yes voter, delivering Muller yoghurts to a shop on the city’s southside. He had just voted for the first time in his life, and said he felt scared as he wielded the pen – frightened of the momentous decision he was making. Another Yes supporter told how she cried in the polling booth. She said: “I’m so near to touching the dream I can feel the hope.”
The emotion may be touching, but how useful would it ever be when it came to the nitty gritty of building a country? Early in the evening, an impromptu session started on the square outside the parliament. As Yes campaigners took their partners in a merry dance at least one no voter joined in, adding to the carnival atmosphere. At times this campaign has seemed not so much like a political event as a great street party.
In fairness to the Scots, it is hard to imagine Dubliners having a hooley on the day of a referendum. But we have rarely had a poll question as straightforward. To add to the sense of occasion, some voters were led to polling booths by men in kilts playing bagpipes. Surely this was a vote loser. One was reminded of the famous definition of a gentleman – a man who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t.
Outside the parliament, there was a cosmopolitan collection of protesters from all over Europe, each seeking their own form of independence. They harboured the hope that if Scotland was to gain independence their time will come. Catalan firemen, decked out in red, yellow and blue flags, had driven over 2,000 kilometres from Barcelona in a tiny Seat 600. There were also Bretons, Sardinians, and even a man calling for independence for ancient Wessex.
When polls opened at 7am, it immediately became apparent that the turnout would be enormous.
While in Ireland, campaigners are banned from canvassing outside polling centres, in the Scottish poll they were right at the gates. At one polling station, Yes supporters had scrawled: “Vote Yes or else.”
Contrary to the impression given that the No side are all tongue-tied shrinking violets, they made their presence felt on the streets of Edinburgh. Echoing the famous Munster slogan, Colin McInnes bore the legend on his blue shirt: “Scottish by birth, British by the grace of God.”
At the Spitalfields Community Centre, No voters outnumbered the Yes advocates. By common agreement the No campaign had been lacklustre, but supporter Alanna Hoggard gave credit to the former British prime minister Gordon Brown for his rousing rallying call that Scotland did not belong to the SNP. Proving himself to be a greater orator than David Cameron, Brown had shouted “This is everyone’s flag, everyone’s country.”
Now the emotion will have to be dampened down, and politicians will have to build a new country that reflects the wishes of both sides.