Working at a university I count the year from September to September. The last few days of August have the same timeless quality as the lull between Christmas and January.
As the Scottish Parliament convened for the final time before the independence referendum a thunderstorm swept across Edinburgh and into the windows of my office, looking out over the Crags. You’ve been able to smell autumn in the air these last few days, and though the seasons may not be what they used to be they have still rolled around in more or less the usual order from last September to this.
What has changed though is Scotland, fundamentally so. Eighteen months ago I would have counted the chances of independence actually happening as virtually zero. There was a sense of inevitability that the SNP, misreading their defeat of Iain Gray as a ringing endorsement of their own policies, would plough a lone furrow. Some of the conversations that had begun to happen in the background were politically interesting but showed little sign of reaching the general public.
Having followed Yes and No activists, written about them and got to know some of them, the rising hope on the faces of the Yes side has been mirrored by a fear on the No side that everything could unravel. Nowhere was this clearer than when I ran into a wet and single-minded Jim Murphy on the harbour in Tarbert, surrounded by Labour aides and with no apparent public interest.
Whereas the Yes campaign, if not the SNP, has been able to galvanise support and activists, the No campaign has ended up going no further than where the Yes side were two years ago at Cineworld in Fountainbridge. Back then some retrograde patriotism and some minor celebrities made the Yes campaign look like an overeager and under-thought Visit Scotland ad, with Colin Fox drafted in as a fig leaf for the SNP’s centrist economics.
In the same way that the expansion of Yes has diluted the presence of some of the diehard nationalists in the SNP, the No campaign has inadvertently fuelled Scotland’s latent unionism. The Orange Order’s decision to march in Edinburgh in the days running up to the vote and the rhetoric of British or foreign produced by senior campaign members has served to isolate a great many people. I recently interviewed one English resident of Edinburgh who said they could not bring themselves to vote No, even though they were undecided as to whether they would vote yes.
The No side are unfortunate that the campaign has coincided with a fragmenting of British politics generally. Old loyalties are fading with both UKIP on the populist right and the Greens on the middle-class Left sucking up votes. Although they have huge financial resources, both Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in an electoral fight for survival to come anywhere near the dominance both crave. What chance the Liberal Democrats might have had to articulate a robust and egalitarian British federalism seems to have vanished, and given a choice between Holyrood and Westminster people are beginning to show a distinct preference.
Inside the No campaign it is just a question of hanging on till polling day and hoping the Yes side do not arrive within the one per cent margin of error. If they do, and they may well do, then there’ll be an autumn storm over Edinburgh that could wash over Scotland and leave it changed forever.