Wednesday 17th September, George Square
The first thing you notice in the centre of Glasgow is the flags. They’re everywhere. Old dears drape them around their shoulders and pin them at the neck with Yes and No badges, while toddlers have them around their waists, tripping up every few steps. There are boxes of them lying on pavements – “two quid a go, though”, we’re told by a burly pensioner, canniness and patriotism running in tandem. They flap furiously from the backs of cars and motorbikes, as drivers circle the streets with horns blaring, match day-style.
More than anything, they seem to signify hope. What the thousands of Saltires don't signify is petty nationalism – at least that's the point that those waving Catalan and Palestinian flags with them seem to be making as the crowds gather for the unofficial Yes rally in George Square.
The speeches give an idea of what that hope is for – issues like nuclear disarmament, the injustices of ATOS, social housing, the living wage come up again and again. With the recitation of oft-cited but ever-chilling poverty statistics (such as one in four Glaswegian men dying before their 65th birthday, and one fifth of the population living below the poverty line), there’s an evident swelling of a long-present pride in social justice. When one speaker cries out for “a new, strong, modern socialist party”, one that will challenge the “failed Scottish Labour project”, the crowd cheers some of the loudest cheers of the day. A man holding a sign reading “Red Tories” seems to sum up he feeling towards Labour among the Glasgow Yes camp.
Wandering through the crowds, the presence of the No campaign was comparatively tiny. “The fact that the No campaign cannot organise an impromptu demonstration on the scale as the Yes one today clearly shows that they’re scared of the fringe elements that will attach themselves to them, like the BNP and the Orange Lodge,” says human rights lawyer and left-wing political activist Aamer Anwar. “Here, it’s extremely multicultural and good humoured. They can’t mobilise people in the same way because they’re arguing for the status quo and standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories, who don’t strike a chord across the communities of Scotland.”
Despite Anwar’s dismissal, a small group of middle-aged men and women clothed in No Thanks! merchandise and Union Jacks have gathered in front of the City Chambers. “I’m very proud to British, so I’m protecting this flag,” one woman says. “If this goes to a Yes, and we live in a republican Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales are going to suffer.”
Rather than acting solely as counter-presence to the Yes rally across the street, it turns out that some members of the group are regulars. “We’ve been here every Wednesday for two years, campaigning to get the Saltire and the Union Jack flying together from the City Chambers. We even offered to pay for the flagpole and maintenance, but they [Glasgow City Council] rejected it. It started with thousands of people, and it’s dwindled to just the people who are here today.” How has the atmosphere been for you? “We feel unwelcome. The police tried to come down to make us move on for just standing here, but we saw Yes folk putting flags and stickers on the war memorial. That’s a disgrace. They’re supposed to be Scottish.” And what do you think will happen on the 19th, whether it’s a Yes or a No? “This is Glasgow, innit. Fuck knows.”
Back in the Square, Joseph and Laurence have driven from Catalonia to Glasgow, in a tiny car painted in Catalan colours, to show solidarity with the Yes campaigners. “We are here because we are in the same situation in Catalonia. We will have our referendum in November, and we want to give support to the Scottish people. If you all say Yes, it’ll be very important for us. It will open the gates for us, the Flemish people – maybe even Corsica.” Almost on cue, a crowd gathers behind them to watch people arrange rows of coloured candle holders in the form of the Catalan and Scottish flags, side by side. Scottish voices chant “Si! Si! Si!”
As soon as it’s dark enough to light candles though, it’s dark enough for tension to build. The sound of song and speech from one side of the Square is almost matched by that of the other, where the once diminutive No presence seems to have gathered momentum. A motorbike edged in red lighting and its tartan-clad driver roar up Duke Street in agreement, and the gathering now includes Abdul Rafiq, the Scottish-Pakistani EDL member who was given an Anti Social Behaviour Order for allegedly singing sectarian songs at Rangers FC matches.
A steady stream of traffic and police keep them apart. “Stick your independence up your arse!” does its best to match “Stick your Union up your arse!”, but “Yes! Yes! Yes!” drowns out “No! No! No!” by the sheer force of numbers as rows of police separate the two camps. “They think this is bad?” says a boy barely 16 years old, leaning in. “There’ve been no scraps at all. It’s just one lot of dafties shouting at the other.”
As the stand off between Yes and No continued, the rest of the Square unexpectedly but wryly erupted in a fury of 160bpm hardcore. The ghosts of the UK rave continuum probably never thought they’d find themselves leading hundreds of Scots into fist-pumping, foot-stamping, techno karaoke-style renditions of DJ Jean – “The Launch” and Scott Brown – “Now Is The Time” in a public square, but with eight hours of live music, speeches, stalls and singing, the reality of the vote had begun to seep in.
Going from screaming at people you wouldn’t mind taking a crack at to jumping straight into head-melting dance music doesn’t feel far off an average Saturday night out. But this is far from average. This is a grassroots political rally, on the eve of the most important vote in the history of the United Kingdom. As the streams of bodies trickle away, conversation is at fever pitch: snatches of dialogue about Nato membership, currency unions and that blog post that you really have to read. With the organisers calling time on the bouncing madness, and carefully ending the night with laughter rather than violence, it manages to make silliness and sincerity welcome bedfellows.
Thursday 18th September, the morning of polling day, Easterhouse
The morning after, and there’s little of the jovial feeling of the night before. The city centre is tense. People seem to be walking that little bit faster, and replying that little bit sharper. This is the day that Scotland has been expecting for two years. The anxiety is palpable.
A 15-minute train journey east, though, and the Square feels an alien prospect. The community of Easterhouse is one of the West of Scotland’s most cited areas for some of the issues that have dominated the campaign: poverty, employment and social housing.
“It’s massively come round to a Yes lately,” says one of the three young Yes campaigners outside the Fare Bannatyne polling station. “I’ve been out every night for seven months, chapping on doors, and I’ve been noticing it more and more. I think it’ll be a 60/40 for Yes, but I can only talk for the area I live in, I guess.” His colleague diplomatically cuts in. “Ach, it’s a democracy. People will vote how they want to vote.” What’s been the hardest issue to convince people of? “That it’s not all about Alex Salmond. You wouldn’t believe how many people say they’re voting No just cause they don’t like him. It’s mental, honestly. It’s the day of the vote, and some folk just aren’t listening.”
A burst of school children run out the front door, followed by life-long Easterhouse resident Caroline. “I voted Yes,” she offers. “Everybody I know round here is voting Yes as well. Actually, there’s only the one wee woman in my street that’s voting No!” How has Easterhouse been since the SNP have been in power? “Well, I’ve lived here for 39 years, and the past few years have been much better, I think. They’ve been pulling all the old tenements down and building new houses. I’m thinking a skate park would be good for the kids, you know? There’s nothing all down there,” she gestures, to the large, untouched fields between the estate and the motorway, “just all that free land.” Did you vote for the SNP at the last election? “This is my first time voting for anything. It’s not about the SNP, is it? Not really. I’ve been up to the polling places before, but I’ve just never gone in. I’ve been following these campaigns from the start, though, so I feel like I understand what it’s all about now. Scotland will be better off with its own independence. It’s for the next generation, not me. I’ve got two wee ones and a 13-year-old. Come their time, they’ll need it.” The door opens again and her husband walks out the polling station, looking sheepish. “I couldn’t vote, hen, my name’s not on the paper. I forgot to register.” She whips her head round, and shoots him a glare only a spouse can master. “Well, you’ll need to get yourself on it, cause you’d be voting in the next one whether you like it or not!”
Thursday 18th September, results night, George Square
The polling stations close at 10PM, and a flare is lit among the returning crowd in George Square. Saltires on bending poles re-emerge, but this time they seem dangerously close to catching fire, which seems to add to the tension. The roar of the crowd is different, too, "Flower of Scotland" sounds more like a guttural chant than a song.
Friday 19th September, results morning, Kinning Park Arts Complex
With the results predicted for 6AM, and with Scottish licensing laws unwilling to accommodate the swathes of people roaming the city centre, looking for a big screen and strong drink to wait it all out, stragglers head over the motorway to the Kinning Park Arts Complex – a warehouse type venue where Andrew WK once did karaoke – to wait out the morning with leftover booze from their afternoon stashes. The makeshift politics classroom falls silent with each council’s result. Most leap out of their seats for the Yes result in Dundee – “We got a fucking city!” and “On yourself Nicola [Sturgeon]!” screams one girl, standing on a table – and with the headiness of day drinking and flag waving, mixed with a two-year countdown punctuated by strident debate, fingers can barely hold cigarettes with nerves.
As the Nos come in from tiny islands to key regions in quick succession, friends drunkenly try to work out the percentage splits before the screen outdoes them, hoping for margins of error. Ten, 15, 20 council results later, the anger has dwindled into silence. It’s now obvious that no one in the room is a No voter. Heads hang somewhere between elbows and hands. No one wants to waste any more words.
“Shall we go back to George Square, pal?”
“Nah, fuck that. It’s grim there now.”
The final result – a No vote of 55 percent compared to 45 percent for yes, sees the very last of the independence crowd skulk off into the morning.
“What about your pal there?” someone asks.
“Ach, he’ll be alright. He has to be, eh?”
The Yes campaign's message of hope for change and self-determination is, for now, a lost cause. The majority have spoken and, for the rest, the dream of the biggest party Scotland would have ever seen is over. Either way, the Scots now have to work as if they live in "the early days of a better nation" – whatever that may be. The poor and the young – demographics which are supposed not to care – became inspired by the campaign for independence, and today many of them must feel like a child who sat up for Christmas morning only to find Santa dead in their living room. Glasgow was a Yes city, and right now it feels like a city of hopes dashed, rather than of relief from the fear of change.