Commentary: A wistful no in Scotland

WASHINGTON -- Scotland's referendum on independence was decided by voters whose hearts said yes but whose heads said no. This is why the energy of the campaign in one of the most consequential democratic consultations in history was with the "Yes...

WASHINGTON - Scotland’s referendum on independence was decided by voters whose hearts said yes but whose heads said no.

This is why the energy of the campaign in one of the most consequential democratic consultations in history was with the “Yes” side. Passion, imagination and hope are always more inspiring than reason, calculation and doubt. This kept the polls close leading into Thursday’s vote, but it’s also why the people of Scotland decided to remain part of the United Kingdom.

I understood how they felt because I would have been one of those swing voters.

My affection for Scottish nationalism came to life 40 years ago in Glasgow’s Govan neighborhood, thanks to an extraordinary woman named Margo MacDonald. Govan was the sort of place outsiders would describe as a slum, a collection of empty lots, half-abandoned buildings and decaying business districts. It was, said the then 30-year-old MacDonald, “the most desolate part of Glasgow.” But it was also a neighborhood with a deep sense of community feeling, a place, she said, where “the people have still not given up.”

Just a few months earlier, MacDonald had electrified Britain by winning a by-election for the Scottish National Party in one of the Labour Party’s safest seats in the country. “You could put a donkey up in Govan, and if it had a Labour button on him, he’d win,” a local politician said.


MacDonald made donkeys of the complacent local Labour folk. A towering woman who had studied to be a physical education teacher and worked as a barmaid (or “publican,” as the newspapers would put it), she was as rousing a campaigner as I have ever met.

She’d pull up to vast public housing estates, stand on the back of a flatbed truck and bellow up to the hundreds of windows. Slowly, faces would appear to hear her preach the nationalist gospel, rooted in a condemnation of both the Labour and Conservative parties and their indifference to the neighborhood’s travails. And she’d always close with a resounding cry. “Vote for yourselves!” she’d shout. “Vote for Govan!” I wish I could properly render her Lanarkshire accent.

MacDonald couldn’t repeat the by-election victory; she lost the subsequent general election by just 543 votes. But she went on to an exemplary career, eventually ending up in the Scottish Parliament as an independent. No party, not even the Scot Nats, could contain this free spirit, who died in April at the age of 70.

I encountered MacDonald in February 1974 when I was a graduate student in Britain. Prime Minister Edward Heath had called an election, and my friend Bud Sheppard and I traveled by bus, train and occasionally our thumbs to learn about British politics from the ground up.

One of the things I learned is why the Scottish Nationalists came so close to achieving independence.

There was a sometimes harshly negative aspect to their argument against Tory Britain. But behind the resentment was an alluring vision of Scotland, certainly one of the world’s loveliest places, as a social democratic paradise, an English- and Gaelic-speaking extension of Scandinavia. Its people would exercise power over their own affairs (“Vote for yourselves!”), free from the dictates of a posh London that knows not what places like Govan have gone through.

Yet in the campaign’s final days, the very finality of separation kicked in. This was always the “Yes” side’s Achilles’ heel. And the “No” activists, with major help from former prime minister Gordon Brown, finally found reasons of the heart to bolster the doubts of the head - about debt and currency and how Scotland would fare on its own in a pitiless global economy.

The day before the voting, Brown, a Scot who shares in his bones the sentiments of his people about comradeship and social justice, gave the speech of his life in Glasgow pleading for union. “This is a decision that cannot be reversed or undone,” he declared. “This is a decision from which there is no going back.”


“The vote tomorrow is not about whether Scotland is a nation. We are - yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” Brown insisted. “The vote tomorrow is whether you want to break and sever every link. ... What we have built together, by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder, ever.”

The best Scottish values I saw long ago in Margo MacDonald’s ferocious advocacy on behalf of the left-out people of Govan were the values that Brown spoke for in his closing argument. That’s why Scotland, with some wistfulness, decided to choose Brown’s more expansive definition of solidarity.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is .

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