John McLellan: Tense night lacking real drama

The votes are counted through the night at the Royal Highland Showground. Picture: Jane Barlow
The votes are counted through the night at the Royal Highland Showground. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Maybe it was the distinctive aroma of the stuff for which bulls are most famous, but even after it was all over bar the counting there was still some of that substance flying around at the referendum centre at the Royal Highland Showground.

Whether it was Edinburgh SNP activists claiming early on that the result was in the bag because of some good returns in the grittier parts of town, or Better Together people saying the united position of the three Unionist parties could be maintained, reality sank in fast.

By 11pm, Ingliston’s cavernous Highland Hall was rattling to the sound of trolley-loads of ballot boxes being wheeled in to the tellers, as teams of counters from both sides hovered over their shoulders anxiously trying to get an early prediction.

Even though they would get the real result in a matter of hours, the party workers had to have something to do to while away the hours and prepare themselves for the worst or the best.

As early as midnight, with exaggerated predictions of a 4:1 trouncing for Yes in west Edinburgh, it was clear where the concerned looks were concentrated and it wasn’t on the faces of No campaigners.

Maybe he had an inkling of what was to come, but city economic development leader Frank Ross had already ditched his Yes badges by the time he arrived at the count, reverting to his solitary SNP button.

City council leader Andrew Burns looked relaxed and chipper, but then he usually does, and by just after midnight he was estimating that No had won the city by a margin of 60:40. Meanwhile, his deputy and SNP head honcho Steve Cardownie was showing the strain, but if anyone will live to fight another day it’s he. And, hey, Hearts are top of their league again.

A happier Jambo was leading Tory activist Iain McGill, seen comfortably chatting to Labour councillor Angela Blacklock, but then again the successful entrepreneur chats comfortably with anyone.

Green MSP Alison Johnstone, fresh from the battle of Craighouse Hill, was sanguine, happy her party had put up a good showing in the campaign but seeming to be expect defeat.

Lib Dem grandees were thick on the ground early on, with Lord Steel mingling with Sir Ming Campbell and fellow Lords Wallace and Purvis. If Jeremy Purvis is a lord then Sir Ming will be asking questions if he doesn’t follow suit after the general election.

But even the most optimistic No backer couldn’t have envisaged how quickly the hopes of the Yes camp crumbled.

Most observers hadn’t expected a clear picture much before 5am and the declarations of the big cities, but when tiny but staunchly SNP Clackmannan went to No in the first result of the night, followed closely by the announcement that the turnout in Yes citadel Dundee was a relatively low 78 per cent, the bookies’ early payout on No was looking like a very sound bit of business.

And proving that there is no such thing as a poor bookmaker, by the time Glasgow declared for independence at 5am to lift the Yes camp’s spirits, it was already all but over. The Highland Hall counting room had emptied of SNP supporters, with the brave but clearly dismayed Jim Eadie MSP a notable exception as the remaining supporters decamped to the campaign lounges.

But for all the cheering of mainly Labour supporters facing their opponents in the lounge, the loss of Glasgow took the wind out their sails. It’s a serious blow to their longer-term prospects, and while winning a council election is one thing, they will need much rebuilding before next year’s general 
election.

There was a moment of excitement when a rumour went round that First Minster Alex Salmond was coming to the count having just touched down at Edinburgh Airport, but it was a false alarm.

For a night expected to be one of high drama, there were more yellow-vested tellers left by then than anyone else, wearily awaiting the Edinburgh declaration amidst a confusing and cumbersome system of announcements which meant the results came through far faster on TV than in the counting hall.

By the time council chief Sue Bruce read out the Edinburgh result at 6am, a ten-point lead for No meant the result was beyond doubt. And when Fife was declared shortly after, the two-year contest was finally at an end.

As Alex Salmond’s concession address was relayed into the hall, already the talk had turned to how the promised new powers for Holyrood were going to be delivered. Scotland’s only Conservative MP, David Mundell, wore the broadest of smiles but he’s got a job on his hands now. That work must start 
immediately.

A few years ago, the great Ingliston hangars were used for a monster production of Faust, in which the alchemist sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles to gain infinite knowledge. Some will argue Scots sold their souls yesterday, others that they saved them. The devil, as they say, will be in the detail. The Prime Minister has until March to deliver, or Mephistopheles Salmond will be back to claim what he still believes is his.