Belfast Telegraph

Scottish independence: They came, they queued, they decided their fate

BY CAHAL MILMO, CHRIS GREEN, JONATHAN BROWN, JAMES CUSICK, NIGEL MORRIS

From Inverness to the Borders, the queues formed before polling stations opened. In Paisley, schoolgirls in blazers cast their ballots en route to lessons. And close to Gretna Green, an English couple dodged the cameras – their shyness caused by eloping to the Yes camp when their family thought they were No.

Democracy in the United Kingdom has rarely been embraced as compellingly as the 15 hours yesterday when it fell to four million Scots - with 59 million other Britons and much of the world beyond holding its breath – to decide the fate of that union.

The 307 years since the Acts of Union – and the last 30 months of exhaustive, exhausting debate over their current worth – had come to this: the passage of close to an entire nation through 5,579 polling stations, there to be presented with six words upon which the existence of the UK hung: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Outside Notre Dame Primary School in Glasgow’s West End, where the flow of voters had been unceasing since the breaking of a dreich dawn, one campaigner holding up a “No” poster said: “This is like nothing we’ve seen before. Astounding.”

Even before the expected evening rush, here was a people galvanised by a ballot far beyond normal politics. In Kinghorn, Fife, more voters passed through one of its polling stations in the first 30 minutes than for the entirety of May’s European elections.

In West Lothian, some polling stations had recorded a 100 per cent turnout by early afternoon. So, among the many changes to the geo-political landscape that the United Kingdom may wake up to this morning, is the irony that the most popular vote in its history could be the one that ended it.

By the closure of the ballot at 10pm last night, it was anticipated that up to 90 per cent of the 4,285,323 people registered to vote would have cast their ballot. Hitherto, the highest turnout in Britain had been the 1950 general election with 83.9 per cent.

Depending on the result to be announced this breakfast time in Edinburgh’s cavernous Royal Highland Centre, packed with cameras from 200 media organisations from across the world, Alex Salmond will find himself bathed in immortality or ignominy.

But, like his Yes campaign opposite, Alistair Darling, the SNP leader cast his ballot with a declaration that he had had an undisturbed night’s sleep.

One final opinion poll, by Ipsos Mori for the London Evening Standard, suggested a “No” victory by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. But the reality was that this latest in many attempts to take Scotland’s oscillating political pulse was irrelevant in the face of the march of its citizens to the ballot box.

 As Mr Salmond put it: “We’re in the hands of the people of Scotland and there’s no safer place to be than in the hands of the Scottish people.”

Indeed, it was on the streets – rather than in the dry calculations of the statisticians – that the energy, overwhelmingly peaceable but in places tinged with rancour and ugliness, generated by Scotland’s independence decision, was to be truly measured.

If elections were won on sheer density of posters and ebullience of campaigners, then a sizable Yes majority might have long been a fait accompli.

Among the first through the door at one Edinburgh polling station was Lisa Clark, a church worker, who voted Yes. She said: “I want a different kind of Scotland, a socially just Scotland.”

In this carnival of a plebiscite, Saltire-painted faces were to be found every turn. Elsewhere, a hardy soul pounded Edinburgh’s Royal Mile carrying a Union Flag sandwich board.

In the Portobello district of the capital, a couple used the waiting time for a passionate embrace. A few miles away on a gritty housing estate, the Pied Piper of Craigmillar, one of dozens of pipers marshalled to march Yes voters to polling stations, brought the added attraction of breathing fire from his instrument.

But in Scotland politics is also, as one early voter put it, “private business” and it has long been this reticence that the No campaign considered to be the ace up its sleeve. Across the country, its activists insisted their silent majority, reluctant to show its colours, was at work.  As one Better Together polling station attendant put it: “We’ve had plenty of quiet thumbs-up as people leave.”

At times, the passion overflowed into something raw and unpleasant. Police said they had arrested a 44-year-old man, believed to be a Yes supporter, for an alleged assault on a No voter outside a polling station in Clydebank.

Voters arriving at one polling station in Dunbarton found it had been spraypainted with the message “Vote yes, or else!” The motivation behind the graffiti remained unclear though No leaders, including Gordon Brown, have condemned “unacceptable abuse” aimed at No voters.

It also cuts both ways. After tennis player Andy Murray ended his silence on the issue yesterday by tweeting his support for Yes, he was subjected to vile abuse online citing his presence at the Dunblane massacre. Police said they were investigating but the trollers were also tried by their peers. One wrote: “You’re more of a disgrace to Britain than Murray ever will be.”

In this most binary of elections, there were many pleas for the subtleties to be recognised of a No vote born not from lack of patriotism but a desire for extra power short of independence – or indeed a Yes vote that expects the economic ties that bind to the UK to remain.

Nowhere else was this perhaps felt than among Britain’s newest voters, those who turned in their in school uniforms after 90 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland registered to vote.

In Inverness, Rhona Weldon, who celebrated her 17th birthday this week, justified her No vote. “There has been a lot of discussion in school. People have been wearing badges but I’ve made my mind up on what I have seen and read,” she said.

As strict polling day impartiality rules forced the buzzing airwaves into silence, the prevailing sense was that Scotland  and perhaps the UK  has recovered its passion for debate.

Orlaith McAree, a charity worker from Edinburgh, who cast her Yes vote early in the morning,  said: “I think that regardless of what happens, the political landscape in Scotland will have changed. The people are so politicised – it’s absolutely unbelievable.”

Outside Notre Dame school, a CNN camera crew provided a reminder that the world is watching Scotland with bated breath. The two million or so votes needed for either side to declare the dissolution or the continuation of the United Kingdom today represent 4 per cent of its electorate but, in the phrase oft claimed by the country itself, they will punch above their weight.

The referendum has thrown a Scotland-shaped stone into a pond of nation states where the ripples are being felt far beyond Hadrian's Wall and the English Channel.

Somewhere its long road to the result that will be read out by Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly this morning, a potent genie of national determination has been let out of its bottle.

All that remains to be seen is whose wish it will grant.

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