The Day Scotland Said No: A Grey Morning After in Edinburgh

Yes flyer
A man walks past a discarded "Yes" campaign paper hat on the Royal Mile after the referendum on Scottish independence in Edinburgh, Scotland September 19, 2014. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Outside Holyrood on the drizzly morning when Scotland decided not to leave the Union, there is more relief than joy. "Yes peaked too soon," some say.

"The old and the rich came out," say the radicals. "This was the settled will of the people," says the establishment.

On this morning, with independence rejected, it's not yet clear what it all means for Scotland or the wider UK. Something happened, something that looked more like democracy than has been seen in a long time. It felt like the fusty grey of British politics gave way, perhaps only briefly, to colour.

For a brief period, the infrastructure of this collection of UK nations seemed fluid, at risk. There was an outpouring of intellectual, political and emotional energy. Many who have spent their lives calling for democratic engagement finally glimpsed it. Some called it a mob. It all showed that behind the system, there is also a varied lifeworld, not permanently disconnected from politics as was thought, but waiting for avenues to participate.

But for all the fun, the fear and the furore, it all ends with just a simple pencilled X in box. The Scottish independence debate burbled on for the best part of two years before bursting brilliantly to life in the final two weeks.

On election morning in Perth in central Scotland, it's damp and overcast, a normal September day were it not for the momentous decision about to be made. As The Times front page has it: "D-day for the Union".

In the soggy, early-morning grass outside the Oakbank community centre polling station, two signs stand side by side. "Vote Yes for a better Scotland" is the simple, certain message in pro-independence blue. The sign next to it reads "No Thanks", cluttering to convince with a list of six risks. The debate has often been cast as binary in this way – black and white, polarized and polarizing. Yet the reality for many was always more nuanced. As a conciliatory friend put it the night before: "It's not just the electorate that is 50/50. A lot of voters are too."

On the day of the vote 4,285,323 people are registered – an astonishing 97% of the eligible population. All of us have read and listened, tried to consume and digest a morass of arguments from many better-versed brains. But in the polling booth it's only you, one pencil, two little boxes, six little words and a question mark. After all that, it's not really clear what either box will really mean for Scotland.

For me, like many, initial hope tempered somewhat to pragmatism. As I stand in the booth, I feel I want to mark percentages in each box, reflecting the nuance and gravity of the whole decision. But it's just one X, one box. I stand for three minutes before pressing graphite to paper. It feels somehow brave. I've voted in this very room before, carefully but lightly. But this time it's heavy; it really, really matters.

Over a long campaign, citizens across Scotland have begun to take on the timbre of politicians. Arguments sound well worn, tested out on pavements and country lanes. Andy Murray, it was thought, knew better than to intervene. A bona fide British sporting hero since his Wimbledon triumph, he had maintained silence. However, on the morning of the vote, Scotland arose to see that he had, somewhat enigmatically, declared for Yes. "Let's do this!" was the quote sent skittering across the Twittersphere.

In his hometown, Dunblane, outside the Victoria Hall polling station, a large Yes sign is crudely spray-painted over with No. The wing mirrors of an arriving Range Rover buzz inward automatically, the suspension lowers, and a stern-faced man stomps out and into the station. A few minutes pass before he stomps back out. "I'm not telling you how I voted, or my name. But I'll tell you something. It should have been cancelled, the whole thing." His is a vote under duress. "The information is just not here. Both sides should have been confident enough to put their findings on the table."

At the entrance, two old men stand on opposite sides. Pensioners are thought least likely to favour independence. However, lifelong nationalist Charles McHugh, 83, is a delighted Yes. "I thought this day would never come!"

His Better Together counterpart, Peter Macgregor, 67, is a picture of unhappiness. "I've never ever been involved in politics, but this is more than politics. I'm here as an expression of frustration and anger at the way this opportunity has been offered, to give away a country on a 50% plebiscite? You wouldn't. You shouldn't."

The Yes side is more gregarious, a flurry of handshakes and welcomes from greens, radicals and SNP members. Yet as a lady with a bluish perm walks quietly by, Macgregor cracks his first smile. "Ah you see? That was a wink! She's a No." She is one of the "silent majority" that the unionists are relying on.

A school bus from nearby Queen Victoria's, a Ministry of defence boarding school, has been ferrying first time voters to the station. A playful catcall floats through the bus window. "Yes voters are Satanists!" Outside, Jade McCartney is 16, un-Satanic, and in favour of independence. She admits "there are probably more Nos in the school though." For the first time, 16 year-olds are voting. They have shown themselves worthy of it, too.

The nation's biggest city, Glasgow, is one of the country's biggest battlegrounds. On Byres Road in the late afternoon, in front of a jigging fiddle and guitar trio, Chef Duncan Gray, 42, is doing some addition. "Fifty," he concludes. Fifty? "Fifty – thousand pounds, my cash". He has committed literally everything he has to the goal of Scottish independence. "I normally live on (the isle of) Arran. All the last year I bought a motorhome and traveled around the country campaigning. It's only now I see what it's like to do something greater than yourself. I'm an atheist, but maybe this is like what people feel when they are touched by God."

Gray tells me that today he has already convinced four No voters to vote Yes.

He has zeal and insistent charm. The disparate group of pro-independence activists, varying shades of the left, seems to be acting as if in the Scotland they want: warm, friendly, open-minded, diverse. While Salmond has been implicated, this is a leaderless collective based on the politics of possibility. Passersby greet them warmly. How could you not?

The possibility of futile loss seems tragic in face of such commitment. Gray is almost out of money, but he doesn't seem to have given it much thought. "It's like asking a footballer in the middle of the second half how he'll feel is he loses. He's not thinking of going up the road in tears." For these evangelistic campaigners, judgement is today.

Just round the corner, outside Glasgow University's main gate, it's Freshers week. University Avenue is full of a different stripe of street campaigner, with very different promises. Brightly dressed promoters give out tokens promising 2 for 1 drinks, and free entrance to local nightclubs. When I arrived here as a student a decade ago, the possibility of Scottish independence was so absurd as to be humorous. I knew only one lone nationalist. Scottish politics was passé; independence was a solution looking for a problem. The political landscape has since shifted in the most remarkable way.

Possilpark is normally more downbeat, one of Glasgow's areas of high poverty. On this day, however, four generations of the McFadden family have been vocally in favour of independence. Matriarch Sandra, 63, has a hand full of claxons and a mouth full of songs. She leads her small band "Singing aye aye, we're all voting aye," to the tune of "You cannae shove your granny off a bus." His first born son Tommy is unconcerned by the prospect of a No. "We've had umpteen governments we didn't vote in. It'll just be a different day, same shite we're used to seeing."

Three quiet and well-spoken unionists on the scene are not local. One, Australian Robert Wiblin, 27, travelled up in a shared car from Oxford to help the UK cause. He shrugs. "I'd always wanted to visit Scotland."

In central George Square, there are yes campaigners with lofty ambitions. It has become the main gathering place for independence campaigners in the past week, and some paper signs can be seen printed "Independence Square".

This immensely fun albeit odd gathering of tartaned, saltired, bannered, Yes-stickered folks, is like some distant aspirant third cousin three times removed of Tahrir in Cairo or the Maidan in Kiev. Five confrontational young men singing "Rule Britannia" are the pantomime baddies, soon run out by the crowd. A woman from the Socialist Workers Party screams laments against war criminals and the neglect of the poor, but at this moment this space seems more party than political. A family of five pedal through on an odd cycle contraption, singing "They've got all the champagne, but they don't have a campaign."

By 10pm, when the polls finally close, a similar group has gathered in the shadow of the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh. "Flower of Scotland" rings from the mouths of young men, while those keen to participate but determined not to represent any such banal displays of nationalism stand arms crossed and nervous. The day is done and the wait begins.

As the polling results come in during the small hours from 2am to 6am, first slowly, then in a flurry, the hope of Yes dissipates. From an early declaration for No in the marginal Clackmannanshire region, the energy drains quickly and sadly. Coming out for Yes, Glasgow and Dundee offer momentary glimmers, but only to the uninitiated. Soon, the same politics and politicians that so many had sought to reject over months of campaigning, are on the screen dissecting the preservation of the union with barely concealed relief. Almost immediately, it feels like the independence moment has passed. As if normal service is trying to resume. As if it's over.

It ended 45% for Yes, 55% for No. Alex Salmond, a life's dream dead for now, conceded gracefully but will probably fight on. David Cameron told Scottish voters: "We hear you."

That this disparate nationwide group of Yes campaigners had been heard was not in doubt. What happens next is less clear. For those who more quietly stood for No, the moment is rich with feeling.

Scotland is tired this morning. Many are sad. But this is how it's meant to feel, when you've spilled everything you have into that little cross on a piece of paper.

Scotsman Englishman: Two Friends, One Thorny Argument, an in-depth ebook on the Scottish independence debate, is available now from Newsweek Insights.