Thursday, 18 September 2014

One STUC Staffer's 1st Scottish Vote

On the eve of the Independence Referendum in Scotland, I slept badly.  When our baby stirred around 5 am, I wondered to myself, “How many people are up right now, worried about the vote?”  Thankfully, I was able to get the baby back to sleep and get some more shut eye myself.

I became a British Citizen in June this year, instead of taking holidays.  After passing a £50 “Life in the UK” test administered at a local college, I paid the £874 fee to acquire British Nationality.  After taking a pledge of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen at Glasgow City Chambers during a Citizenship Ceremony, at which my American parents, my husband and our son were present to support me, I registered to vote.

At the time, I didn’t realise that my first vote as a British Citizen might also be my last.

Around 7 am, I awoke and got ready for the day.  I woke up the baby who giggled and pretended to sneeze when he saw me (the ultimate compliment!) and upon locating our polling cards hanging on the message board in the hall, we ran out the door with my husband – as no amount of planning ever makes mornings run smoothly in our household.

Derelict lot near to the polling place.
Being in a hurry, we drove to the heart of the Calton to our polling station.  Finding a space to park near to the Calton Heritage Learning Centre was not an easy task, despite the amount of derelict buildings and vacant lots in the vicinity.  I noticed that there wasn’t a queue outside, as I had expected, but there was a steady stream of folks who were coming and going as I paused to ask my husband to take a snap of me before my first ever vote in Scotland.

I looked down at the ground as I walked up to the door, and noticed names and dates on the paving stones.  My husband remarked to me, “Those are the names of all the women who died in the factory fire,” referring to the Templeton Carpet Factory disaster which occurred across the street from the polling station in 1889.  I did a quick calculation in my head, and realised the fire disaster was 125 years ago.  I shook my head, reflecting on how the past meets the future, walked on and smiled at the YES and NO people standing outside the door without stopping to speak to anyone.

Commemorative stones to the 29 workers.
Inside the door of the Learning Centre, I stopped short.  There were two police officers standing in the hallway, and it threw me – mainly, because I had never seen a police officer in a polling station in my life.  Carrying our son, my husband passed by me and looked at a bunch of signs on white paper at the end of the hall.  It was then that I realised how grateful I was that he was there, because I was out of my depth.  He said a number to me, which I then found out was our ballot box number, and made a mental note to remember to check this in the future.  We handed our cards to the two gentlemen at our polling table, and they made some notes on a long list.  In watching them, I noticed that I was the 88th person to vote at that station so far today.  I was handed my ballot, kindly given directions to mark a cross in one box, fold the paper once, and drop it in the box next to them.

I walked over to the ballot booths and noticed that there was no curtain to pull, which was another change.  My husband stood next to me, holding our baby, in the next booth to mine, but I didn’t look at him.  I read the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” and my mind went blank.

Utter mental panic ensued in the space of 10 seconds. 

A ballot paper.
“What am I voting?”  “Am I marking YES or NO?”  “Don’t pull a ‘Donna Moss’ with your vote.” “What’s he voting?” “What am I supposed to remember?” “Get a grip, Jennifer.  Decide, and mark your vote.”

I re-read the question, marked my ballot, folded it in half, and dropped it in the box.

Do I feel different?  Yes, I do. 

In March 2015, I will have lived in Scotland for a decade, and for about half that time, I’ve been living in Glasgow.  I have always taken an active interest in local politics and government in every community I’ve ever lived in, as all of my local councillors, MSPs and MPs can attest (probably to their annoyance and my husband’s chagrin).

A Just Scotland

I’ve listened to the well-reasoned arguments both for and against independence, read the White Paper and the “A Just Scotland” series of analysis from the STUC, taken part in discussions on the “American Expats in Scotland” groups on Facebook, read (often amusing) enthusiastic comments and discussion from members of the STUC Youth Committee, bantered with long-time personal friends who happen to work in the civil service, been shut down by relatives who didn’t want to discuss the vote, prayed and reflected on my own, spoken at the play park with parents and grandparents from all walks of life and varied countries of birth, been annoyed in different cities at the propaganda stuck on every surface imaginable, watched the shouty debates on television, engaged on Twitter and most of all, conversed with my husband about our future and what world we want our son to grow up in, hereafter.

Today, I voted for the first time in Scotland.  I’ll probably sleep badly again tonight.  But tomorrow, I’ll be ready to engage with everything this vote is kicking off as a stepping stone to changing the status quo. 

A month from today, on the 18th October, I’ll march from Glasgow Green with YES voters and NO voters alike, uniting in solidarity for A Just Scotland. 

Why don’t you join us?

Jennifer Payne

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