Scottish referendum dies of sheer exhaustion

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As the polls closed at 10pm, the Yes supporters headed to the Scottish parliament preparing for a night of celebration. The crowd was building; the weather was almost tropically balmy for Edinburgh; the night was young and full of promise.

By 3am, it was drizzling. A hard core remained, in considerably worse condition than they were at the start. Some of the damage was self-inflicted, from which they will recover. But they were also feeling a lot more than five hours older. And from that there can be no recovery.

All the energy, all the enthusiasm, all the engagement that had made the pro-independence campaign so compelling began to disintegrate the moment the first result came in from Clackmannanshire, “the Wee County”. These political novices may never know such glad confident morning again.

One young woman sat on the edge of one of the parliament’s water features, clutching her Saltire. “Where is everyone?” I asked. “Gone home.” “Didn’t like what they were hearing?” “Yes. And they’re all pissed.”

The remnant were still singing, tunelessly. A few fraternal delegates from the other discontented portions of Europe also clung on, waving Basque, Catalan, Andalucían and Welsh flags. They were not necessarily rewarded for their support. “Is that an English flag?” a young woman snorted. Then she rushed over to confiscate it.

“We came [from] the Basque country to support you!” cried the ex-waver as he watched his flag disappear. “You should have a Scottish flag,” his tormentor replied sternly.

The streets were still full of arguments, as they have been for months, even years. “England’s going to the right! England’s going to the right!” one young man was still insisting. “You’re talking shite,” a kilted figure told his companion. But the passion that has permeated this whole referendum was dying, perhaps of sheer exhaustion.

The still, quiet centre of events was the Royal Highland Centre, an exotic-sounding name for a vast warehouse out by the airport. It is most famously used for the Royal Highland agricultural show and some of those attending claimed to be able to smell the sheep poo.

The nerve centre was a small side room where the votes from across Scotland were being collated in preparation for the final official announcement – the most important but not the most difficult job. The main hall was given over to the count for the City of Edinburgh. Hundreds of tellers, sustained only by bottles of water and a small bowl of Glacier Mints, worked through the night to count the ballots, by hand, in time-honoured fashion.

Around them the representatives of the two camps kept a watchful eye and drew comfort where they could. But what struck me were the tellers. They would have had their own opinions, just like the drunks outside Holyrood. They will almost certainly have voted themselves.

Yet there they were, putting aside their own beliefs to fulfil – conscientiously, even fastidiously – their civic duty. It seems to me an extremely British thing to do. And now the notion of Britishness – which for the past fortnight has often seemed on the brink of extinction – can expect to survive a while longer.

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