Then a lorry appears through the gloom. Written in the dirt on its rear end is a piece of reverse graffiti. “United We Stand. Alone We Fall,” it says. With its carefully drawn Union flag, it is a reminder that, after 18 months during which separation became a distinct possibility, a majority of the Scottish people have just decided we really are Better Together.
In Prestonpans, the Labour Club is shaking off a heavy one. In the early hours of Friday morning the building resounded to the shouts of party members as one local authority after another announced a majority of No votes. The biggest cheer, naturally, was reserved for East Lothian, where the ratio was 62 per cent to 38 per cent. But this morning, the club has a hung-over, sleepy air, with just a handful of stragglers propping up the bar. At one end is Michael Docherty, originally from South Yorkshire, who moved to the town 16 years ago after leaving the army. He says he is relieved it is finally over, believing it to have stoked anti-English sentiment.
“My mum and dad were visiting [from England] at the weekend and asked if it was safe to come. I have had an egg thrown at my window because I put up a No poster. My partner’s 11-year-old son was worrying about it all. We had to comfort him and tell him everything would be all right.”
This feeling of being made to feel disloyal for voting No is one I hear from Scots and non-Scots alike. Some talk about being called traitors and of a concerted attempt to deny them their dual Scottish/British identity.
“One of the things I liked when I moved here from Northern Ireland was that, unlike at home, you weren’t forced to choose. You could be proudly Scottish and proudly British, but some of that has been lost in this campaign,” Caroline Johnstone, a No campaigner from East Ayrshire, told me as she waited for the results to come in at a Better Together event the previous night.
This dual identity is particularly strong in Prestonpans. Formerly a centre for salt panning and coal mining, it is a Labour stronghold. The decline of those industries has left its mark. There is no shortage of poverty, but, with its mercat cross, its Preston tower and the series of murals which chart its heritage, it is beginning to bloom as a tourist destination.
Standing in front of a saltire made out of flowers – a memorial to Cpl Same Shaw, awarded the VC during the Indian Mutiny in 1858 – Nita Fraser, a doughty pensioner from nearby Tranent, declares herself immune to any assault on her identity. “I am strong. I am not easily blown over,” she says. It comes as no surprise to learn Fraser is a former ward sister. “I had no doubt whatever it would be No,” she says. “I had no qualms. I love Scotland and I didn’t like all the hubris of the Yes campaign – it was full of sound and thunder, symbolising nothing.”
In Prestonpans, reminders of the battle fought on a nearby field – the first great victory of the Jacobite uprising – are everywhere. They have been memorialised in the town’s famous tapestry and yesterday the confrontation was re-enacted. Still, as another stitch is woven into the fabric of the country’s history, there is little evidence of a thirst for rebellion.
“I think it was just too much of a gamble for people,” says Joyce Clark, who is having lunch at the Gothenburg pub with her aunt, Janet Gourlay. “I work for a big corporate company. If we’d had a Yes vote it would have become a satellite office and jobs would have gone – and I’m not willing to risk that.”
Clark portrays herself as a self-starter who flourished in the Thatcher era. “When I bought my first house, the interest rate shot up to 14%, but I can honestly say that I have always managed to get through life without too much bother because you just get out there and grab it and you do what you can. You just get on with it.”
This “I’m all right Jack” resistance to change, which has been linked, somewhat contentiously, with the No campaign, is something I do encounter on my sojourn through the No heartlands, particularly among the better-off. Though delighted to have won, some seem bewildered that a referendum was allowed to take place at all. They look at their own circumstances and, with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, perceive the campaign as a waste of energy that could have been better directed towards speeding up the economic recovery.
At the Victoria Inn in Haddington, a wealthy market town filled with gift shops selling artisan jewellery and bags and Le Creuset ovenware, David and Linda Strevens are getting quietly sozzled. As they tease each other, they remind me of the posh couple in Gogglebox who sip wine and comment on the soaps. Linda, a retired hairdresser, says she has put champagne in their fridge to celebrate, but admits the amount they have already consumed makes it unlikely it will be opened that night. Both of them loathe Alex Salmond, seeing the referendum as a personal ego trip. “A bully” and someone who does not accept defeat graciously are among the more positive things they say about him. “We didn’t see any reason for change. We are quite happy with things the way they are,” says Linda.
It is a subject that provoked a strong reaction at the Better Together post-vote event in Glasgow the night before. Caroline Johnstone bitterly resents the suggestion that No campaigners have voted against hope or change. “Don’t tell me I’m not interested in social justice,” she says. “I find the suggestion I don’t care about poverty or stringent welfare cuts deeply offensive. I haven’t voted against hope, but hope has to be realistic.”
Early on at the event in a Glasgow hotel, before it was clear No had won and by such a convincing margin, fretting activists engaged in a degree of soul-searching over the way the campaign had been conducted. As they cheered politicians who wandered around attracting clusters of mobile-phone wielding admirers like the cartoon characters at EuroDisney, they reflected on the in-your-face positivity of the grassroots Yes movement and wondered what they could have done to make themselves seem more vibrant.
“It has been frustrating. We have been quieter. You didn’t see our stickers so much. You were putting this work in and you weren’t always seeing the presence,” said 17-year-old youth representative Jasmine Bell . Her friend Lauren Butler agreed it had been tough, as a young person, to constantly feel as if you were on the “less cool” side of the debate, especially when the George Square parties were going on and her Facebook friends were saying the footage of them was the best they’d seen all year. “Just because they’re singing and dancing doesn’t make them right,” she says. But in East Lothian and the Borders there is a real distaste for the Yes cavalcade, which is perceived as brash and aggressive. Asked why No voters were less vocal about their allegiances, Linda says: “We’re more refined.”
Many of the Better Together activists were also focused on the fight for more devolved powers and cognisant of the potential for promises to be reneged on. That threat didn’t take long to materialise as – hours after the result – David Cameron appeared to backtrack on the timetable for change and the politically expedient Tory-LibDem-Labour alliance formed to fight independence looked to some as though it might fall apart.
“I have emailed everyone I can in the Better Together headquarters to say I’m so pleased with the result, but we need to make sure we deliver what we’ve promised because if we don’t I’m fearful there will be another referendum in 10 years time,” says Johnstone.
In a park in Haddington, Jack Worden is holding his four-year-old grandson Elliot steady as he clambers aboard a zip wire. A No voter with centre-left leanings, he says he felt there were too many risks attached to independence, but wanted the result to be tight because he is concerned about social justice and because a smaller margin would make it more likely devolved powers would be delivered. Worden aspires to a more federal Britain, with a set-up similar to that of the Länder in Germany or the states in the US. “I think the referendum will shake up the governance of the UK, but I also think there will be a lot of aggro around the West Lothian question and the Barnett formula,” he says.
When it comes to devolved powers, however, the former academic seems to be in the minority, with many people sceptical they will be delivered and unconvinced of their benefits. On the road to Melrose, I pass several enormous No banners hung on farm gates; a despondent Yes voter tells me the town is packed with “men in suits” doing well for themselves and talks of veiled threats of eviction made against lease-holders who backed Yes. Certainly, the town has more than its fair share of Range Rovers and its rolling hills seem untouched by socio-economic turmoil. “I don’t believe we’ll get any more powers, I think the politicians just said that to swing it,” says Jimmy Mackenzie, who lives in Edinburgh, but is staying in a caravan in the area.
Sales adviser and No campaigner Frank Wilson agrees with David Strevens that any powers gained are likely to do more harm than good if placed in the wrong hands. “People think it’s the land of milk and honey we are getting, but if we get devolved powers they have to be used properly,” he says.
The people I meet can all rhyme off practical reasons for being grateful the No campaign prevailed: the NHS, potential job losses, the retention of the pound, their pensions, but behind all of these lies a genuine though less easily articulated sense of personal connectedness. The places I visited: Prestonpans, Haddington and Melrose were all intensely Scottish; at Prestonpans, a memorial put up to mark Burns’ bicentenary carries a poem by the Bard and Walter Scott’s home Abbotsford is just outside Melrose. But for No voters there is no conflict between feeling Scottish and British; whether born here or adopted Scots, their affinity to both states is integral to their identity. For people like them, the No victory is no less than a reaffirmation of who they are.
“What I loved most when the result was announced was the sight of No voters dancing round wrapped in the saltire,” says Johnstone. “That made me emotional. During the campaign it felt as if you weren’t allowed to love the saltire as much as you loved the Union Jack – that we were being deprived of it. But you know, it’s everybody’s flag, just as it should be – it must be – one Scotland.”