It was a chilly Friday evening in Glasgow and camped out in the doorway of a department store in the fading sunlight were a band of street musicians belting out a rather grungy rendition of the Ben E King classic, “Stand by Me”.
This could have been an unofficial campaign anthem for the Better Together campaign – the group lobbying against Scotland’s independence from the UK – whose headquarters were set deep inside a rather unglamorous shopping centre just across the street (where I’d just come from).
The offices had been busy. Phone numbers across the country were being cold-called and the campaign’s leader Alistair Darling, Britain’s former chancellor of the exchequer, had just left the premises and a hive of activity in his wake
The question on the ballot paper in Scotland’s referendum – should Scotland be an independent country? – set in motion a conversation unprecedented in recent British history. In bus stops and coffee shops, in classrooms and staffrooms across the country people talked about, questioned and grappled with the idea of the kind of country their country should be.
This referendum was being held in peace time. And this was a question borne out of a democratic process – not of the tensions or violence that nationalism in its conventional form usually brings. As one city councilor in Glasgow told me, “We have accomplished a hugely democratic debate on a hugely divisive subject without a scratch on the furniture.”
Well, for rest of the UK the varnish on the furniture did get a bit of a scuff in the past two weeks of the campaign. Whereas Scotland had debated independence for two years or so, the rest of the UK only woke up to the prospect with two weeks to go before polling day. This left little room above the clamour for the nuance and detail that had been a hallmark of the conversation north of the border.
The dust following the “No” vote in last week’s referendum is now settling, albeit uneasily. The constitutional future of the UK is all to play for. “Politics can’t always be like this,” wrote one London-based newspaper in the lead-up to the vote. Well maybe not. But as the familiar grind of politics returns in the UK, let’s hope that the enthusiasm and engagement shown by a record-breaking 85 per cent voter turnout in the referendum doesn’t fade.“For all, there are a lot of fears,” one Scottish actress told me in the lead-up to the vote. “And there’s a lot of hopes as well.”
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.