After weeks of expectation, speculation and anticipation – all the campaigning done – it came as a shock to voters on Thursday the 18th when they read their ballot paper. All the guidance had suggested just a small cross was required of them. The oft repeated question would be visible followed by two boxes. Two statements. Two routes.
Instead, the voters were presented with a small notebook on their booth table. Embossed on the front cover was simply ‘Scotland?’ This was met with perplexity. Wordless, afraid of undermining the democratic process, of invoking the ire of the stern lady who had asked their name and street name, of looking silly, most stood motionless for several seconds. This was not the way it was supposed to go. After months of policy and polls, think tanks, blogs, essays, bulletins, conversations, arguments, debates… here they were. With no instruction, no guide, no information or expert opinion. Just a small notebook with ‘Scotland?’ embossed on the cover.
Some in their confusion simply wrote an ‘x’ and shuffled back to drop their notebooks in the boxes. Some clearly wrote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in their best handwriting, others wrote ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and then circled, underlined or deleted as their conscience led them.
The majority though took a different path. A lot of pictures were drawn. Often of body parts. There were a few appendices and a pair of kidneys but for the most part it was, as it were, the usual parts that appeared. While people behind them got agitated in the queue some sketched caricatures, maps, landscapes, family trees, blueprints, diagrams, charts, cartoons and self portraits. The frustrated people behind them got no explanation from those who had voted. The voters simply filet out, muted, gobsmacked, fuming, dazed, grinning, some crying.
Later analysis showed that 7% of voters chose to write sheet music on the ruled pages. 1.7% were haikus and a full 12% chose to rip sheets out of the notebook and fold them into origami patterns. One memorable vote was a pop up book. All the more impressive considering this voter – like all the others – was equipped with only a pencil and a notebook.
There were essays, novellas, pages and pages of poetry. One of the notebooks had all its pages removed leaving only the cover.
Some people wrote out recipes – bannocks featured heavily – others provided step by step descriptions of their daily routine or complex assembly instructions. 1 in 7 ballots returned made some reference to a dream, real or imagined, that a voter had had.
Some regurgitated manifestos, some quoted pundits and other poets. A lot of people traced around their hand. One gentleman traced around a different body part. The pages were a mixture of fear, hope, clarity and confusion. Some adamant, some ambivalent. There were sewing patterns and instructions on how to plant seeds to brighten up public spaces.
There were prayers, jokes, character monologues, snatches of liturgy. Much of it was written in Scots. Many people, experienced and inexperienced, had a stab at writing in Gaelic.
That night when the polls closed the broadcasters were as stumped as everybody who had gone to vote but unlike them they did not respond creatively. They did not even report the confirmation that the postal vote ballot boxes also contained neat piles of the same notebooks. They simply dug out the old test cards and broadcast static images until the following morning.
In the early morning a stunned nation, prodded by the world’s media, began to emerge. There were accounts of counting officers weeping as they went through the ballots. At Dundee one of them took out a guitar and just started playing. The somber count, bit by bit, became a house ceilidh. A poor lad at STV struggled to keep it together as a particularly crude 87 year old voter called Moira had him in stitches as she vividly described her vote.
A lot of human interest stories started picking up the tales of voters who went back and fourth in their opinion while they were in the process of voting itself. One man said he got so tied up in knots, he’s not sure what he voted for at all. He had a broad grin on his face while telling the reporter and did not seem phased.
Eddi Reader told the world’s press she intended to record an album made up entirely of songs and musical pieces composed as part of the vote. Calvin Harris soon expressed a wish to take these pieces and in turn mix them into dance tracks.
One famous author vowed he would never write again – so moved was he at what all his fellow voters had produced when he had only mustered an ‘x.’ Another writer told him not to be daft.
One of the votes took the form of a pitch for a drama about jute mill workers in the 19th century finding a tunnel into outer space. After a fierce bidding war, Channel 4 beat Netflix to the rights to commission it.
It took far longer than one night to go through the results. It took months to sift through everything.
A Guardian editorial claimed to have proof it was Banksy who had orchestrated the whole thing. It was later confirmed however that Banksy had spent the past several months deep in the rain forest affixing tiny police officer’s helmets to tree frogs.
Nobody could find who had produced the ballot papers although Cannongate Books stayed suspiciously quiet on the subject. To respect the Edinburgh Agreement all parties decided to accept the result. Scotland had spoken. And rapped, and jigged and folded and drawn.
What followed was a long gradual process of change. It was often horribly funny, uncomfortable, deeply moving and in time – deeply transformational. It set a new standard for political engagement.
It was wonderfully, terrifyingly, inconclusive.
But the whole nation agreed it had been a right laugh.
And in the end, riffing on the possibilities held in all these votes, changes were slowly brought in.
These changes, often low key and unremarkable, started to make life that bit sweeter, wider and liveable.