FOR a few minutes on 19 September next year, Mary Pitcaithly, a 57-year-old council chief executive from Falkirk, will have the future of Britain and Scotland literally in her hands.
As well as administering the Central Belt local authority, Pitcaithly doubles up as the chief counting officer for Scotland. It will be her job to take a piece of paper containing the final result of the referendum onto the stage at the Royal Highland Centre in Ingliston, on the western outskirts of Edinburgh, and let the rest of the country know the result. Thrust from relative obscurity, she will – for a few moments – become the most watched face in the country.
That announcement will end what promises to be more than 24 hours of unbearable tension. The polls will open at 7 in the morning before closing at 10pm. But with well over 3 million people expected to vote – well up on normal elections in Scotland – and with votes to be brought in from the islands, the decision is unlikely to be made clear until long past the early hours. This is unlikely to be a breakfast result. If it is a Yes vote, it may end up being more like Free by tea. And in the duration, Britain and Scotland will effectively be in limbo.
It promises to be an agonisingly drawn-out conclusion to what has already been a marathon campaign. Two-and-a-half years have passed since Alex Salmond’s landslide victory in the 2011 elections ensured that the referendum on independence would take place. A further nine months is still to run. Yet for all the huff and puff so far, the polls have remained largely the same. Around a third of those certain to vote say they will be voting for independence. Just under 60 per cent say they will vote to maintain the Union. The rest say they are undecided. So what can we expect in 2014 before Mrs Pitcaithly finally gets her big moment in the sun?
Alex Salmond said in the summer – as he sought to explain the polls – that the campaign was still in a “phoney war” stage. Despite the white paper having been launched in November, his campaign team still believe this is the case. Stephen Noon, chief strategist at the YesScotland campaign argues: “There is a point where people focus on an election and the same is the case with the referendum. At the moment the referendum is sufficiently far away. People are aware of it but they haven’t sat down and thought ‘what does this mean for me?’” But that will soon change. Both campaigns are readying themselves for nine months of non-stop action, during which time the question of independence will move assuredly from a hypothetical case to a genuine reality.
On the No side, post New Year, campaign chiefs say that one of the first big moves will be to include voices from around the rest of the United Kingdom on their side. Blair MacDougall, the head of the Better Together campaign, says the aim is to “break the frame” constructed by the pro-independence side that this is all a battle between Scotland on one side and “London” on the other. “People realise that this is a connection to something bigger than just that. There is a family tie there. You’ll see northern voices, Brummy voices, working-class London voices,” he says. There will also be many England-resident Scots who may want to add their own voice, plus there are rumours that comedian Eddie Izzard might add his shoulder to the pro-UK wheel. The clear message will be: “Please don’t go; we want you to stay.”
Adding to that powerful emotional pull, the pro-UK parties will, in the spring, set out their own plans for life after a No vote, in the form of extended devolution to Holyrood. Neither will satisfy pro-independence campaigners – for example, there is little likelihood that either Labour or the Conservatives will back devolution of the welfare state to Scotland. The proposals have also been identified by the pro-independence side as a major opportunity – finally, they will get the chance to throw some scrutiny back on their opponents and question the detail and validity of their plans. Mr Noon declares: “The No campaign’s hope of a knock-out blow [in 2013] hasn’t worked. All the attention is on Yes, but the gaping hole is what does a No mean. I am very confident that people will be focussing on what a No means.”
Come May, attention will then turn to another potential opportunity for the pro-independence movement, when the European elections are held. Many expect Ukip to emerge as the biggest single party (it came second in 2009 to the Conservatives) – a result which could be seized on by the pro-independence side as evidence that Scotland and England are moving in different directions. Helpfully for Mr Salmond and his team, the Scottish referendum campaign proper begins immediately after the European vote is over at the end of May.
Mr MacDougall at Better Together believes that May will see the big money being thrown in by his opponents. He expects YesScotland to go early, in the knowledge that they need a lead heading into the summer. “That is when the Nationalists will spend a lot of money on billboard adverts and so on. It makes more strategic sense for us to do things later rather than earlier,” he says.
The end of June then sees the symbolism of the campaign go into overdrive. On the last weekend of June, the National Trust for Scotland stages a three-day re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn, marking the 700th anniversary of the most iconic military victory over England in the country’s history. Yet this event could be upstaged in dramatic fashion by the decision to stage the UK Armed Forces day in Stirling on the same weekend, when up to 50,000 people are expected to watch the Red Arrows and medieval re-enactments as part of a celebration of Britain’s Navy, Army and Air Force.
Scotland’s very special summer will then continue to upstage the political debate, with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow set for the end of July. It leaves little time after the crowds have disappeared for the campaign to crank up again. Holyrood’s recess dates have been changed to allow MSPs to return for a three-week session from 3 August onwards. From 23 August onwards, however, it will then be one last push to the finish – before the call goes out to Mrs Pitcaithly to put everyone out of their misery.