“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .”
So begins A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ homage to duality, social justice and resurrection set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and it neatly encapsulates my memory of the period immediately around the independence referendum one year ago.
As I said to one of my best friends just before the referendum, it felt like something special, possibly the first thing to happen in our adult lifetimes that matched the significance of the Moon landings or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Before the day of the vote itself, it was a time of incredible hope, infused with a sense that genuine progressive change was possible and fuelled by the most widespread political awakening I’ve ever experienced. I spoke about the referendum, wider politics, what it meant to be Scottish or British to strangers and almost as importantly, to friends and family who I’d never have broached such subjects with in the past.
I remember being at the Yes rally in George Square the day before the referendum and feeling that this was the most excited I’d ever been about politics and the atmosphere was how I’d imagine it would be if Scotland won the world cup (or let’s be honest, just managed to qualify for a football finals…)
Of course, it wasn’t all good. There was conflict and I got into some blazing rows with workmates and friends (I have to admit that I didn’t always cover myself in glory in some of these debates) and there was also the fear that a chance at genuine, honest discussion was being stolen by the establishment and the media.
Then the time came to vote and I will always remember walking up to the polling station with my wife and my newborn son, accompanied by my mother in law (who lives in England but wanted to be in Scotland to experience the vote) and her English husband who insisted on winding me up by accepting and wearing a ‘No Thanks’ sticker.
Then some friends and I settled in with a few beers to watch the late night results show and it quickly became apparent as the results came in for each local authority, that it wasn’t going to go our way. Nonetheless, we saw it through to the end, feebly holding on to the usual Scottish sports fan hope that ‘it’s still mathematically possible if Edinburgh goes 80-20 for Yes’ and then we shuffled off to our beds (or got the first train home) as our hangovers and heartsick disappointment got the better of us.
That said, I remain massively proud that the city of my birth (Dundee) and the city I’ve lived in since the age of 18 (Glasgow) were two of the few parts of the country to cast their vote for change.
When I surfaced in the afternoon of the 19th to see the news coverage of the smug and derisory unionist response, with the debate swiftly shifted to being about EVEL and later the awful scenes in George Square, I was more disheartened than I’ve ever been in a long career of having hopes come to naught (Scottish sports fan, remember.)
So I did something I never thought I would do. I joined a political party and got politically active. I also started writing intensively about politics, rather than just arguing with people on social media. I knew that I couldn’t just lapse into the semi-apathetic state I’d occupied before… and neither did the rest of Scotland.
Fast forward to a year later and where are we?
With a majority Conservative government in Westminster who are openly opposed to revisiting the question of Scottish independence and have no intention of granting greater devolution as seemingly promised before the referendum. Five years and more of austerity cuts and warmongering at Westminster seems certain while the mainstream media stokes up fear and prejudice against refugees and benefits claimants.
Nonetheless (or perhaps because of this), support for independence only seems to grow, to the point where the SNP went from avoiding the topic of a second referendum to setting out a potential timeframe for one.
The worrying thing there is the general lack of self-reflection as to the reasons why Yes didn’t get over the line last year. Too many are too willing to assume that a victory is certain in a second independence referendum and the tendency of more than a few to insist blind compliance with the SNP party line is the only way to manifest support for independence or progressive change is concerning.
For me, independence was never about nationalism – I was Scottish when I was born and I will always be Scottish, regardless of the stamp on my passport or which government I pay my taxes to – but rather about making my country a fairer place with a more representative and responsible government.
I don’t think that can be achieved as an effective one party state or without continual self reflection as to why Scotland should be independent and what sort of independent country we’d want to be.
As such, with a year to get over the heartache of the No vote, a year spent raising my boys (now there’s two of them) and being more politically active than ever before, I’m still Yes because the economic, social and democratic reasons have only become more stark.
Now I’m a bit more cynical and very much settling in for the long haul rather than hoping for transformative change in the short term.
This will be the only year that I’ll dwell on this date as something to remember because I don’t believe in enshrining failure, rather in learning lessons and moving on.
The beauty of the Yes campaign was it’s diversity and inclusiveness, with supporters of almost all political hues, classes and ethnicities lending their voice to Yes. For a few sunny days last year, we had a glimpse of how positive, hopeful and dynamic Scotland’s future could be and that’s the memory I want to take forward.
Another Scotland is possible and even if it is delayed, we can still make it a reality, but only if we maintain all the energy, self awareness, diversity and above all, positivity which made last summer so memorable.