Scottish independence: How was it for you?

With the big vote just days away, impassioned activists and impartial onlookers alike tell Dani Garavelli how the referendum campaign has made an indelible mark on their lives
Sarah Beattie-Smith, campaigner for the Green Yes campaign. Picture: Alex HewittSarah Beattie-Smith, campaigner for the Green Yes campaign. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Sarah Beattie-Smith, campaigner for the Green Yes campaign. Picture: Alex Hewitt

With the big vote just days away, impassioned activists and impartial onlookers alike tell Dani Garavelli how the referendum campaign has made an indelible mark on their lives

How was it for you?


Frank Murphy, Landlord at The Pot Still, Glasgow

H alf the reason people come to pubs is to talk, but there’s an old saying: No football, no religion, no politics. We actually have a sign which says “Nae indy debates at the bar” which is a logical extension. One night, there was a couple of guys discussing the vote and, after an hour, I was fed up listening to them. Then one of the regulars who could start a fight in an empty house decided to come in and join the conversation, so after that we put the sign up. Some time later, a writer Kevin Gilday came in, saw it and made a wee theatre piece inspired by it which was performed up at Oran Mor [as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five-Minute Theatre series]

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We are one block away from the Yes headquarters and five minutes from the Better Together headquarters, but I think when campaigners from either side come in they are probably quite happy not to talk about the referendum for a while.

Ordinary people really are interested in the debate though. There was a guy the other day who stuck his head round the door because the news was on and he wanted to see what was happening. You get that quite often when there’s football or golf on, but you don’t normally expect it for politics. We’ve had the news on much more. We had the big debates on too, but, to be honest, people drifted away because if you think about it as a boxing match there were lots of little jabs and no big hits.

My pal has a bar and he has big Yes posters in his windows and that’s fine. I have no view about whether a publican should express their political opinion or not, this is just how I choose to run my business.

One of the most interesting things that’s happened is having to tell my auntie to stop handing out badges in the pub. She is a former councillor. She had a handful of the badges and tried to give me one, so I put it in my back pocket, but then she started to give them to other guys. It was kind of awkward because she’s my dad’s big sister and a former head teacher – I was sent to her to pass my English – so she’s not exactly a cuddly auntie.

My sister realised the other day that we probably didn’t have enough staff coming in on the night after the vote so we are bringing in some more because I imagine, if Yes wins, there will be a lot of people out celebrating. It will be like pay weekend. I think there will be a lot of naked emotion on display which does make me pause. I hope, in a way, that it’s a convincing result – not 51/49 - because that will just lead to bickering. «


Andrew King English teacher, Hawick High School

I have found children to be very engaged with the referendum. I think that’s good for the country and the school has done its best to encourage it. Our modern studies department, for example, organised a debate, with two politicians on either side. The whole senior school were invited and the staff as well. There were prepared and unprepared questions. It was highly informative and seemed successful.

For English Higher and National 5s, children have to write a persuasive essay and I’ve found quite a few pupils are choosing to write about Scottish independence. Also as part of the close reading, what we did as a department was to get two passages, one Yes, one No – equally weighted of course – and look at the emotive language and persuasive techniques used.

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Personally, I am involved on the Better Together side, but I have to be completely impartial. An e-mail went round from the Scottish Borders local authority to say it had not to be discussed in the classroom because the senior pupils can vote and, as a teacher and a role model, you could sway them, but even before that e-mail I chose not to because you have to be professional. I have been getting asked for my opinion every day, but I have given absolutely no indication. It’s not very difficult as we are used to being in that situation. For example being from the west of Scotland they often ask me what football team I support.

There have been low points in the campaign. But what has been wonderful is to see children who are disengaged from learning become excited about something which was previously seen as kind of abstract and academic. «

Alan Bissett, Novelist and playwright

In January 2012, I wrote a satirical poem called “Vote Britain”. I put it on YouTube and it went viral and from that point it’s never really stopped. I thought in for a penny in for a pound and committed myself [to the Yes cause]. It has been a rollercoaster and it feels like my life is kind of polarised because I have never been this publicly loved and publicly hated before. One of the things I have noticed in the last couple of months is that I have been getting stopped in the streets every single day which is bewildering. Before this referendum campaign I wasn’t really known outside Scottish literature.

There have been many high points for me. One was the rally on Calton Hill last summer where there were over 10,000 people and I came on and read my poem immediately after the First Minister had left the stage. I remember looking out and thinking I will never experience anything like this again. I came off shaking and thought: “That’s my Freddie Mercury at Live Aid moment.” Also doing my show at the Fringe was great. It was funded by ordinary people who were wanting a Yes vote, and I kept thinking, “What if I arse this up and all these people have put money in.” Usually if I do the Fringe I do a 10-day run in a 200-seater theatre, but we decided on a 24-day in a 400-seater theatre so I had to sell 10,000 tickets and it sold out every single day. It was quite electric.

I also did a thing through in Falkirk in the housing scheme where I grew up. I can’t remember a political meeting for anything there before, not the miners’ strike or the poll tax, or the Iraq War, but there were 300 people crammed into this tiny community centre. Moments like this, when we saw the bringing together of a community that we were told had been atomised and dispersed, were great.

On the downside, I got an absolute hammering off the press. It was surreal. It started off with me being called an ethnic nationalist and by the end of the week there was a headline in the Daily Telegraph: “How the sight of a fat, naked Alan Bissett convinced me to vote No.” For a while, I felt exposed but then I realised what they were trying to do was shut me down.

My first novel was published when I was 25 and at that age you are essentially in it for the attention. Now, I think any art I produce is essentially useless unless it’s actually helping society.

I do have worries though. I think: “Is that how I’m going to be defined from now on? Will I become a caricature?” I guess we’ll see. «

Talat Yaqoob, Feminist and No campaigner

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I’m quite a political person – mostly on feminist issues up to now – so I knew I would be involved in the campaign. It was not until doing my research, figuring out where my vote was and becoming passionate about it, however, that I became quite so committed.

I am utterly exhausted, and I have lost my voice twice, but I have really enjoyed it. Now 97 per cent of eligible electorate are registered and that’s happened because campaigners on both sides have been talking and politicising people. That’s something to be really proud of.

It’s been great to meet all the women campaigners. I had the opportunity to do training and campaign development with a huge group of women in Edinburgh most of whom had never been political, weren’t members of a political party, but wanted to have an opinion and to be confident in putting that opinion forward. They wanted to claim some of the public sphere. I really enjoyed that – seeing women have the space they rightly deserve on the political stage.

There has definitely been a shift. Organisations and even media have been pushed to look for women specifically to be on their panels because they don’t want a backlash, and rightly so. There is more chance of people being held to account when women on the ground are politicised. I will be shouting to make sure this continues after the referendum.

There have been times when passion tipped into anger and I have had to put up with sexist and racist abuse. I’m sure people on both sides have had to deal with the same kind of thing, but it is unnecessary. I would have liked to have seen more intervention, to be able to say, “That’s not acceptable, don’t do that.”

But I have also made friends across the divide. I was on a panel opposite a Yes campaigner and we started talking about the economy and oil, explaining our differences and then realised there weren’t really that many differences. We both wanted a progressive Scotland, we just came to different conclusions. For the last 20 minutes of the debate we just ended up talking about how important feminism was. We have stayed in touch and we will be getting together for dinner soon after the result to discuss it and talk about how we make feminism the next important thing we work on. «

Fr Jim Lawlor Priest, at the Immaculate Conception, Maryhill, Glasgow

I met my sisters for supper last Sunday and it was the first time we really talked about the referendum. I was aware that, even amongst the four of us, there was a difference in opinion between Yes and No. In my parish – which now has 23 different nationalities and takes in some of the richest and poorest areas of the city – there is the same diversity. My principal job as a priest is to hold a parish together and yet there are definitely tensions.

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My own family wasn’t hugely political, but my grandfather was and I can’t think of any time since he was ranting and raving about the Clydebank shipyards that people have been discussing politics or the political culture to the extent they are now.

I have also been aware of people talking about ethics and morality and not just party politics. We have a Justice and Peace group and they are saying it’s not so much about Yes or No, it is about what is best going to deliver the ethics and morality which matches what we believe about poverty.

We have 900 people in the church every Sunday – that’s a lot of power to influence people – so I have to be very careful what I say. I had one lady pleading with me after mass. She said: “‘You know you have not said anything about the referendum from the altar, you have only encouraged us to vote.” I said: “I can’t really give my own personal opinions.” This lady was clearly a No voter and she said: “I am really worried. You have to plead with people not to separate.” It took a wee bit to calm her down.

I shared that anecdote during the week, as a way into saying well, actually I, personally, can’t be Yes or No, and somebody else got really offended because she felt it meant I was proposing Yes. Today I feel I will be walking on egg shells because obviously I need to say something, but I will have to couch it very carefully. It’s a feast day for us, the Suffering of Jesus on the Cross, and I think what I will tell them is that we need to identify the suffering going on in Scotland – the foodbanks, the people who have fled from their own countries, the drug addiction – and think how we can best vote to change it.

I am also concerned that, in a few days, everything will be pretty much resolved at one level, but perhaps some of those tensions will live on. On the 19th, there will be a pile of people who will be bitterly disappointed and there will be another crowd who are not. As a minister of reconciliation, what am I going to do to try to move things on or help people work through it?

That’s a very complex field, but we have really worked hard to build a community here. We don’t want to find that, on this issue, people are divided and sitting on opposite sides of the church. «

Cat Headley, Lawyer and No campaigner

The referendum campaign has been an exhilarating, challenging and life-changing experience for me. I had never been involved in politics before, but, after the SNP got their majority government and the vote was on the agenda, I gradually got more involved. I had always been deeply in favour of the union and, through meeting people, I kind of found a political voice for myself. I did my first political stall and then I joined the Labour Party and now I’m Labour Party candidate for Edinburgh West for Holyrood in 2016. So the campaign has been transformative for me.

I will probably say, further down the line, that if it weren’t for Twitter I would never have been in politics. It kind of gave me a way of developing my own opinions and of bouncing ideas off of other people and meeting people.

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I became the local leader for Better Together in Leith and one of the great things was that people of all parties and no party were just turning up to help. Your party alignment was never really mentioned, or what you did in your day job or what your background was. It was just a group of people who were united in a common cause. There have been all kinds of people involved: young guys from Portobello who have never been involved in politics before up to people with titles, and this is only something you find out afterwards.

My driving force has always been that I don’t want to wake up on the 19th and wish I had done more. If it’s a Yes vote I will be disappointed but I think I will feel I did everything I could and if this is the will of the majority of voting people in Scotland then so be it. I have no intention of leaving the country. My intention would be to continue working the best I can for a better Scotland. «

Dylan Brittain, Owner, Rainbow Room

International hairdressers, George Square, Glasgow

In our salon, we see about 350 people a week and I reckon in the last month the referendum is the first thing 95 per cent of them have talked about. They are straight into it. The other day, I had a client chatting for 30 minutes about it at the desk and another who spoke about it for his full appointment: a full hour and that’s all he talked about.

As a business we have taken a very professional stance. As far as our clients are concerned, we are undecided and, in fairness, we are undecided because we are hearing two sides every single day. I don’t need to read the newspaper or turn on the news, my clients are educating me, although I have done my own research as well. Every day, I feel more knowledgeable and confident in discussing the issues because I am being kept up to date.

I am impressed they are so well-informed. But what has surprised me is that, from my experience, most people have been looking at the bigger picture – like the economy – first and their own personal concerns second and I would have thought it would be the other way around.

As hairdressers, we are right at the coalface; I don’t think anyone or any industry spends as much time interacting one-on-one with clients as we do and the level of engagement has been amazing.

Some customers have spoken to us about the division the referendum is causing within their family. One woman said she had decided not to speak to hers about it because they’re so split, another that there will be turmoil in her house whatever the result because some support Yes and some support No.

I don’t know what it will be like in here on Friday, but we already know we are going to be busy. There will be a lot of unhappy people and a lot who are ecstatic. It’s impossible to prepare for because nothing like this has ever happened before but we will adapt accordingly.” «

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Sarah Beattie-Smith, Co-convenor of the Edinburgh Green Party and spokesperson for the Radical Independence campaign

It’s my 29th birthday on Wednesday and I have long said there won’t be a party until we know the result of the referendum. I am going to spend the day in the Green Yes tardis on Leith Walk.

I think I always knew the campaign was going to involve a lot of effort and not very much sleep, but we have this one chance and we have to make it work.

I have really enjoyed going to National Collective events and getting to know Scottish culture better. It’s been quite an eye-opener to see Scottish poets and musicians and artists I never knew existed and to deepen my understanding of my own culture.

I have been in the tardis for three days now – from 8am to 8pm you are talking politics with people who are interested and want to know more. I have only met two people who have said they are not voting. Even the undecided people are saying “I know it’s so important”. They feel there’s pressure on them. They really want to know facts and figures.

I had a woman on our first day; she must have been in her fifties, and she had never voted in her life. She had only just registered and she was asking us: “How does it work? Do I do it online? Do I have to go somewhere?” And she was so excited about the possibility of having the chance to vote Yes. I got quite emotional talking to her. This campaign has invigorated so many people.

We have had a few No folk here at the tardis. There was a woman, she must have been in late twenties, early thirties, she walked right up to me and said: “I just don’t think you’ve looked at the economics.” I said: “Actually I have a degree in economics and I have done quite a lot of reading.” She said: “You’re just wrong then.” Then she stood at a bus stop next to me and told me I was disgusting.

I have definitely developed a much thicker skin. The campaign has strengthened my resolve to listen to people and to be positive and polite and it’s helped me hone my arguments. But the best thing has been the number of people who are giving up all their free time to engage in political debate. I have never seen anything like it in my life. My parents, who took me on CND marches when I was a baby, have never seen anything like it – the fact that people are talking about politics everywhere you go. That’s a win, regardless of which side you are on. «