Scottish referendum leaves behind an air of bitterness

By Anna Porter
National Post, September 19, 2014

The question was simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It was the answer, of course, that was difficult.

In November 2013, the British parliament agreed that the decision would be entirely up to the Scots. When it was all over, more than 84% of eligible citizens had turned out to vote. Indeed, a staggering percentage of the population became engaged in the democratic process, the ideas presented by both sides of the issue, the concerns and hopes for their own future.

Polling stations remained open until 10p.m. the night of September 18th, and they were counting votes well into the morning of the next day. It was not until 8a.m., a damp, foggy morning in Edinburgh, that the results were announced. Scotland had decided to stay in the United Kingdom.

Many were relieved, almost as many were disappointed and a very few were angry. With 55.3% voting in favour of the 307-year-old marriage to the rUK (the rest of the UK), fears of a messy — and, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron foresaw — painful divorce dissipated. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and Scotland’s first minister, was gracious in defeat. He has since resigned, but only after urging unity and the acceptance of the democratic results.

Just a few days earlier, driving around the Highlands of Scotland, it was easy to get the impression that the momentum of the “Better Together” campaign was faltering. There was talk of “the Clearances,” the Glen Coe massacre of the MacDonalds, the destruction of the clans, the emptiness of former farmlands. Several people I met were still angry with the loathed “bedroom tax” and fulminated at the mention of former PM Margaret Thatcher, who pulled the UK out of its inertia.

On the Isle of Skye, I counted about 50 “YES” signs for every “NO Thank You.” In Inverness, the High Street’s street lamps were festooned with YES signs and shops and pubs featured the saltire. On the drive along Loch Ness few locals seemed to have the courage to display their desire to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Yet, Rhoda Grant, member of Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands, told me she was confident sanity would prevail and the Scots would understand the benefits of the union. According to Ms. Grant, the reason why there were so few “NO” signs was that “YES” volunteers had tore them down during the night.

Will there be bitterness when all this is over? She hoped not. But that hope could be for naught. Gillion’s Bar, the popular local whose owner, Rory Munro, pasted a big YES placard in his entrance, may have fewer customers after the vote. Rory, an avuncular Scot called the No campaign “Project Fear.” James, our Edinburgh cab driver, talked of “the bitter together” campaign. He thought the efforts by David Cameron, UK Labour leader Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown to pull Scots back from the precipice of independence were “too little, too late.” There are fewer Tories in Scotland than panda bears, James said.

With that logic, why would anyone listen to Mr. Cameron, no matter how persuasive and emotionally charged his plea?

As Scots went to the polling stations, the politeness that characterized the weeks before the vote almost vanished. Ed Miliband, was jostled and yelled at, his words were drowned out by rowdy nationalists. Huge, flag-waving crowds gathered in front of the BBC building in Glasgow to protest what they believed was biased reporting and interviews.

Alex Salmond, talked of the “social union” of Scots and the English, even as he urged separation. There are families and friends in all parts of the UK, Scots who work in other parts of the UK and people from England who work here. A recent estimate calculates that almost a million Scots live elsewhere on the British Isles (incidentally, they were not entitled to vote) and about half as many from south of the “border” live in Scotland.

Mr. Salmond was in the fortunate position that he felt he didn’t have to spell out the consequences of independence (the YES side never talks of “separation”), he merely repeated his conviction that, once on its own, Scotland would find a solution to every problem. The consequences of a continued union, however, are yet to be determined. Mr. Cameron’s primary focus, now, will be to cut through the bitterness that engulfed a simple question.