I’ve always loved voting. Ever since I was a child the stories of the suffragettes and women’s rights activists all over the world fascinated me. As a New Zealander, one of my favourite things about my country is that in 1893 it became the first nation in the world to give women the right to vote. So, when I was 18, and on the hot November day of my New Zealand politics exam I entered that polling place for the first time, I was more excited than a 1960s Beatles fan. Since that day I have had the privilege to vote six times; in three New Zealand elections and a referendum on electoral systems, in the European elections and in the referendum on Scottish independence. In only one of those six occasions did I back the winning side – the referendum on keeping MMP as New Zealand’s electoral system. Thanks in part to that same proportional representation, however, I do not feel that a single one of those other five votes ever went to waste, least of all the two I cast within 2 days this September.
When I woke up on September 18th, I found it hard to believe that the day was really here, the day I’d been preparing for since before I even moved here, to Scotland. Like a child on Christmas morning, I leaped out of bed at 6am, donned a blue t-shirt with a big white Yes emblazoned on it, a healthy smattering of Yes badges, and set off with my ever supportive husband Bernie to our polling place in Shettleston. As we put our X in the relevant box, we both found ourselves more emotional than we expected. A lump rose in my throat to think that all the debate of the last few years came down to this, and us recent immigrants were being granted the right to be a part of it.
Struggling to contain my excitement and anxiety for the day ahead, I made my way to the Yes Kelvin headquarters in St Vincent Street to be allocated my first role of that long day. Some were knocking on doors, ensuring people had voted, others ran the street stalls, but most, like myself, ended up standing outside the polling stations, helping people find their way and providing some last minute brand recognition.
The irony of the 18th for me, was that I spent 90% of the time that polls were open – 7am to 10pm – making small talk with No campaigners. You’ve been fighting for something for months, even years, and now all you can do is stand there in your paraphernalia, and you’re stuck for hours on end with someone who has the exact same task but for the opposite side. You’ll never convince them of anything now, they’ve already voted anyway, all you can do is be friendly.
This picture is of Elizabeth who I spent the morning with. We found common ground in her interest in New Zealand. It turns out this was fueled by her former classmate, Billy Connolly, and his World Tour of New Zealand. She particularly loved his rendition of Pokarekare Ana, one of New Zealand’s best-loved songs. In a surreal moment of democracy at its finest, we sang the Maori love-song out to the residents of that Glaswegian housing scheme as they walked in to cast their votes on their nation’s independence.
And this is Flora with her human who kept me company for most of the afternoon. A friendlier, more patient dog I’ve never met. She was content to be adored by Yes and No badge wearers alike as they flooded in to Hillhead Primary School, right alongside the University of Glasgow campus.
One of these voters was the comedian Kevin Bridges, a Yes supporter who was very happy to get his photo taken with me as he went in to vote. (And just as happy to receive my directions to Hillhead High School, where he discovered he was actually supposed to vote!) Another burst of the surreal and exciting for that Thursday.
Also keeping us company were the police officers stationed at each polling place. They seemed to be having a reasonably good time, chatting to us and the voters going past. They seemed confident they wouldn’t have much else to do and I’m proud to say that at least on the 18th they were proved right. Scotland behaved with admirable respect. The first one I met actually laughed out loud when he realised he was tasked with preventing violence between myself and an arthritic octogenarian.
Between shifts we were able to sit down at the hectic campaign base and take a much-needed drop of Irn Bru and a sandwich, before receiving our next orders and heading off to some other corner of the city.
There was a strange atmosphere in the city that day, like the whole of Glasgow was holding its breath, waiting. The frequency of Yes and No paraphernalia had been steadily increasing since I arrived here in January, but on Thursday for the first time it felt like those who displayed their allegiance outnumbered those who did not.
Finally, at 10pm, I arrived at the home of our friends Jonathan and Laura, where around half the other Scottish Literature postgraduates sat with the BBC coverage on mute. I was warmly welcomed and pressed with wine immediately, for which I was incredibly grateful. I changed out of my campaign clothes and began to relax a little. There was nothing more I could do now but wait.
At first the room was loud, full of energetic discussions of politics and poetry. Kirsty initiated games like each reciting relevant Scottish poems, and stating things we loved about Scotland, free from the fear of accusations of being a nationalist, just allowed to celebrate. After a few hours of being able to temporarily pretend this was just another party, it was time to turn the sound back on for the first result – the tiny, almost irrelevant Clackmanninshire. This was the region that was apparently most likely to vote Yes overall, and we were nervous but not fearful. But then the result came. Clackmanninshire had voted No.
There was a silence like none I have ever experienced. It was like a physical presence in the room, as though the gravity had been altered. We looked at each other in shock, all our noise and blether completely vanished.
Over the next few hours the results kept coming. Some were extraordinarily close, separated by less than a percentage point, but region after region kept voting No. Around 3am Bernie, now almost sure of the result, decided to head home to get some sleep before work the next day. A few others decided the same thing and now only half a dozen of us remained.
There was temporary excitement about an hour later when the results from Dundee came through. They had convincingly voted Yes, bringing the vote so close that the result was once again completely unpredictable.
This is a shot of the coverage at that point – only 0.4% separating the vote.
But the teal never overtook the pink on the graph. Edinburgh’s overwhelming majority for No was a huge blow, but it was softened by the result from Glasgow where Yes had triumphed. At least I had not been delusional in my hope. At least the efforts of those I’d known and worked with had not gone to waste. At least I lived in a city I could be proud of and where I could hold my head up, and not feel defeated.
Finally, at about 5am, ‘Scotland Votes No’ was displayed across the screen. It took until then for the reality to hit, and when it did… well I can’t really describe it in a way that will do it justice. Some who supported the other side said the next day to stop crying and get over it. It’s just a vote. But after all the work, all the research, all the hope, I think we were justified in our grief. We were not the only ones that night, though Nicola Sturgeon was on the screen almost at that moment, interrupted during her interview, and I’ve never been more in awe of a person’s restraint.
I left the flat in Anniesland to catch a 6.30am train home. It was a surreal journey, a train half full of people in tears in the cold grey light of dawn: bleak, dreich. The kindly ticket inspector walked right past without charging me for a ticket, and as a result it was hours before I noticed I had left my wallet behind. In another act of kindness, the take-away deliverer who was the unfortunate catalyst that made me realise my mistake, guessed the situation and said, “I’ll pay for it, sister,” and disappeared before I could protest.
If anyone is in need of a takeaway in Glasgow, the kind people of the Swallow Cafe deserve their custom!
As the day wore on, only bad news seemed to turn up. Bernie had a work party that evening, so it was a lonely and depressing day. I decided I would allow myself that Friday and the weekend to grieve and be sad, and to do so privately, but then on Monday it would be time to get back up and move on, working for positive change without bitterness or blame. Perhaps the worst moment of the day though, came when news reached me of the Unionists in George Square. They were converging through Queen street station with their flags, singing Rule Britannia and saying Glasgow would burn for voting Yes. It was foul and sickening to watch, and I am quite sure that was true for those who voted No as well as Yes.
I finally got hold of Bernie to tell him to get a taxi and avoid Queen St station. It turned out that ‘Glasgow burning’ was limited to the Herald offices, as their Sunday edition was the only paper that backed Yes. Though as the daily edition did not, it wasn’t really the most thought-out revenge.
The following day we heard the results of the New Zealand election. They did not ease our minds. We had voted Green for our party vote and for the Labour candidate in our electorate (although in our electorate the choices were pretty limited). The governing National party however, New Zealand’s version of the Tories (though far more centrist) appeared to have made New Zealand electoral history and won an outright majority. Labour suffered their worst defeat since 1922. But the worst news for me came in the voter turnout statistics. Only 78%, the lowest ever. Conversely I had been cheered by the Scottish referendum turnout of 85%. A bittersweet knowledge that voter turnout was higher in my adopted country than at home, perhaps for the first time in history.
Now of course I respect the democratic process in both countries. As I said at the start, I love to vote, and as such understand that millions of others who disagree with me must also vote and that is part of the joy. But to receive such decisive news from both my home countries within one day that my beliefs would be so decidedly unrepresented was fairly crushing for a political enthusiast such as myself.
A couple of weeks later good news arrived when the international votes, including our own, were counted. As a result, National lost their outright majority and the Greens gained a seat. Add to this the slightly scary Conservative party were eliminated entirely, and there were definite silver linings for a hippy like me.
So there it was. I’d laid my beliefs out on the line, (and hey, look, I’m doing it again, right now!)worn them on my coat and spoken openly about them more than I ever have before. And both my nations disagreed with me. And that, objectively, is fine. It’s democracy. But subjectively? It’s totally gutting.
Things are changing. The Yes camp in all their manifestations are going nowhere. English people are calling for the devolution they too deserve. The SNP and Green party memberships are doubling and tripling. In their panic, the three big Westminster parties (though the SNP is now theoretically bigger than the Liberal Democrats) promised us all sorts of things they now face pressure to deliver. Labour in New Zealand and the UK are being faced with some hard questions.
It’s true that 45% of Scotland are disappointed. But 100% are more engaged and better informed about how they are governed. In Scotland, no one can say that the Yes movement did not change the way we understand Britain, or that it did not challenge the status quo, and perhaps alter it forever. In New Zealand, no one can say that any votes were wasted, or that this election did not throw light onto dark places that needed illuminating.
It was a crazy, exhausting, exciting, gut-wrenching, life-changing two days in September. Without a doubt I’m glad that I was a part of them.