The votes were cast in church halls, schools, working men’s clubs and old corn exchanges. In the wee hours of Friday morning, these little platoons of unionist Scotland fell under a new command. Not long ago, the distinct identities, the sheer Scottishness of these institutions, reflected a country at ease with itself within the United Kingdom. No longer. That Scotland has disappeared in a flurry of yellow. Today the defining institution in contemporary Scottish life is the Scottish National party.
On one level, the SNP’s sweeping victory can be explained by the rules of the political game. In the binary independence referendum in September, 45 per cent meant defeat. At the general election, about half the votes means the vast majority of the country’s 59 seats at Westminster. It means that Scotland has broken firmly with an England that has rejected Labour but embraced the Conservatives. It means Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, has transcended Alex Salmond, her predecessor. She leads a party still in power in Edinburgh and now with influence in London, too.
The fortunes of nations are not, though, determined on one level. What historians may one day see as the Long Referendum — from the SNP’s scene-setting victory in the 2011 Scottish elections to the drama of last year’s vote to Thursday’s epilogue — has shown the weariness of the union. Pragmatism and contingency have long characterised Scotland’s membership of the UK. It has sustained through the slow ebbing of empire and the waves of Thatcherism. But allied to self-interest was a pride in mixed identity, in Britishness, now fading like the Edinburgh haar after dawn.
Unease has replaced ambivalence. Scotland is fractured. This election, like the referendum, has revealed its unbalanced tribalism: nationalism versus unionism, but those who voted No in September and pro-union parties this week do not see themselves as “unionist”. That sort of talk, that sort of vocabulary was supposed to be for the Irish. Yet again: no longer. Although there are emotional supporters of the union and staid nationalists, the fervour of the SNP has turned support for independence into Scotland’s secular faith. And faith is very difficult to reason away.
Not even in Edinburgh, the city of the Scottish enlightenment, where Hume and Smith sit perched on plinths above the mob. Edinburgh — genteel, prim, sensible Edinburgh, Edinburgh that voted 61 per cent No, is waking up to four nationalist MPs.
“I have become more Scottish-centric,” explained a mechanic outside a polling booth in Comely Bank, a middle-class part of Scotland’s middle-class city, on Thursday. “And I feel like England is drifting further and further to the right.”
He used to vote Labour: the party founded by a Scot, which founded the Scottish parliament. It has lost its heartland. At the count for the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat, Gordon Brown’s old patch, SNP activists talked about working-class Scots who regretted their No votes and vowed to avenge a “betrayal”.
A tear in his eye, David Torrance, an MSP said: “They used to call this area the Red Machine. But this is a momentous night. Labour is dead and buried in Scotland.”
The SNP’s seizure of Labour ground has been a generation in the making, ever since Mr Salmond helped defeat the cultural amateurism of the old guard in the 1980s. After it voted for Tony Blair in 1997, gradually, then suddenly, like Hemingway’s bankruptcy, Labour has eroded. Iraq mattered. So too has the feeling, articulated by its former Scottish leader, that the party north of the border is a mere “branch office” of a UK party.
Although the SNP has run Scotland in a centrist fashion, it has persuaded Scots that it is not only leftwing but also the best advocate for the country in Westminster. These were characteristics that once made Labour the dominant player in Scotland.
And so Britain has lost one of its few remaining national institutions. There is a sadness among Scottish supporters of the union, who won a fight they never sought only to lose anyway. They feel disowned.
A lawyer — a professional in this city of professions — outside Comely Bank polling station described how she “believes that we are better together but nobody seems to care”.
Where do we go from here? It will depend partly on whether there is such a thing as “we” any more.
England’s support for the Conservatives suggests a Britain torn asunder by two nationalisms — English and Scottish. Boris Johnson was an MP for all of five minutes before he suggested a “federal offer” for Scotland. Little wonder that supporters of the union worry that the patience of fellow Britons has run dry.
And the fear among some English people, especially Conservative supporters whipped up by the party and its supporters in the media, is that the new MPs will be out to vandalise.
In Scotland, this idea is rarer. “Absolute bunkum,” one of Scotland’s top pollsters said in a café in Edinburgh early on Thursday. “It is not in their interests to be anything other than professional ahead of the Holyrood vote. The last thing the SNP will want is another referendum.”
But England may decide otherwise.
The 85,000 people who have joined the party since September, quadrupling its numbers, have invested in the SNP as a “progressive” force — “Nicola’s party”. Many want another shot soon at an independence referendum.
But while the political momentum is clearly with the SNP its wise heads know that since the oil price dropped, the economic case has weakened. As one long-time activist put it: “We will only get one more shot at independence and we have to make sure we will win.”
Keeping the dreams of her giddy supporters in check is Ms Sturgeon’s happy challenge.
So, the union is not over — yet. The caution Scots exerted in September has not vanished in May. But viewed from a Scotland painted yellow, the outlook is bleaker than it has been since 1745.
Scotland has become a democratic one-party state. This old nation is wrenching apart from the rest of the UK, from 307 years of modern history. And only the precise destination is uncertain.
This article has been amended to correct the Edinburgh outcome of the independence referendum
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