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In the early hours of next Friday, Elaine McPherson may become, for a moment, the most famous local government officer in the world. She is the chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council, which aspires to be the first authority in Scotland to announce its results from the referendum.
Clackmannanshire has certain advantages in this publicity contest. It has always been known as “the wee county” and the tallying will be easy. It has 48,000 people and comprises just 61 square miles, which makes England’s midget, Rutland, seem like Texas, and Rhode Island like Jupiter.
Also, its result may send a frisson round the planet. This constituency was one of the first to send a Nationalist MP to Westminster, in 1974. And though Labour holds the seat now, the sentiment has not gone away.
This week the ‘Yes Clacks’ campaigning team returned to Lornshill on the fringes of the county town, Alloa, for a second canvass: just to check on those who were missed last time or were undecided.
We were on a new hillside private estate – not obvious territory. The results were staggering. There was no need to eavesdrop: the nods and smiles told their own story. The split was at least 2-1 in favour of independence.
The September sun was improbably warm and the organiser, Ellen Forson, elated. “Give me afternoons like this!” she said. “When we first came up here everyone was No. It’s totally turned round.”
The wee county is seen as a microcosm of Scotland. It certainly has its share of the nation’s paradoxes. Alloa’s short but seductive railway line to Stirling – past the Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills – was recently reopened after 40 years to general acclaim: English towns almost never get their trains back. Yet in England a town so beautifully set would be abuzz with visitors. Not this one. The centre is unloved; house prices are low; youth unemployment is sky-high.
No wonder independence seems tempting. The signs were everywhere from the comfy suburbs to the sad-eyed council estates: I must have spotted 300 Yes posters against just one tiny “Vote Naw” sticker, placed anonymously on a lamppost and half scratched out. This can be misleading: silent majorities do not proclaim their opinions. But one is starting to think the Nos’ silence is not a sign of strength.
I began to hold a private competition for the most enthusiastic household. For a while the record was set by a four-poster home. Then, in an older part of town, we came upon a small, very Scottish-looking Victorian stone bungalow. It only had two front windows, largely blocked by five Yes signs and a saltire.
The canvassers were not meant to be wasting time on the committed, but this one seemed too good to ignore. I had a strange feeling as we knocked. I was right. We were answered by Laurence Cribb, a Londoner.
He moved to Scotland – for love – 12 years ago, and now has four children under six. “It’s been a long journey for me, being English,” he said. “But I’ve read about it, thought about it, and I hope I understand it. Independence is the only way to go.” And there is no one more zealous than a convert. Just the five signs? “To be fair, there were more. But the kids keep tearing them down. Not a statement. It’s something for them to do.”
Overt opposition from the over-sixes in Alloa is inaudible. Being a No supporter now is like lying awake amid the noise from next door’s all-night party. And complaining about the racket is proving useless.