The Night Scotland Turned Yellow

Watching the death throes of Labour on election night in Glasgow

Features UK Politics
“It’s our time”: Nicola Sturgeon (in red) with the seven newly-elected SNP Glasgow MPs (photo: Nicola Sturgeon, via twitter)

The wake had begun before the body had been pronounced dead. The faces of the Labour supporters standing in gloomy huddles on election night in Glasgow’s Emirates arena, where the votes are being counted, tell the story that will be laid out in excruciating numerical detail when, shortly after three in the morning, the results are announced.

A sturdy silver-haired man in his seventies stands tall but his face is gloomy. His eyes are watery. Bob Gillespie, his red rosette pinned to a grey tweed jacket, denies he is upset: “I’m unmoved because what you have here is the old game of divide and rule.”

If I had to draw a caricature of Old Labour, it would look a lot like Bob Gillespie. Politics, he tells me, “is about the class division of society.” I am not surprised when I later learn that Gillespie was a trades union firebrand in the 1980s who, as an official at Sogat, the printing union, was a thorn in the side of Robert Maxwell, publisher of the Daily Record. (That he is the father of Bobby Gillespie, the lead singer of rock band Primal Scream, is more of a surprise.) He knows what it is to lose to the SNP:  he was the Labour candidate in the 1988 Glasgow Govan by-election, which he lost in a major upset to the SNP’s Jim Sillars.

He tells me he dreads to think what his old comrades and their predecessors would make of the SNP landslide. “Oh, they would be turning in their grave. The old Red Clydesiders? Jesus Christ!”

Labour, he says, has suffered because the Conservatives are nowhere to be seen in Scottish politics: “It is seen as the party of the establishment. The Tories are in power but they’re invisible here. So Labour gets it.”

As the night wears on, it becomes harder to spot a red rosette. Labour has retreated to the café outside the count. At the front of the hall, before a large screen that will announce the political deaths of Scottish Labour’s big beasts — Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy — the SNP supporters assemble.

Nicola Sturgeon enters to much fanfare. She watches the good news roll in with her supporters; the cameras watch her.

The crowd cheers, they chant, they jeer, they wave the Saltire.

“They used to say that the Bolsheviks were the smallest party in Russia, until they took power,” says Gillespie over the whooping of the nationalists. “Then there was a queue a mile long for people wanting to join.”

By the time I talk to Tom Harris, the soon-to-be-defenestrated Labour MP for Glasgow South whom I followed on the campaign for the April issue of Standpoint, he has, after months of door knocking, hustings and coffee meetings, given up: “It’s three o’clock in the morning. I have no analysis or solutions to offer. I’m sure there is some logic in the decision the Scottish people have just made but right now I can’t see it. I’m sure it’s there but just very well hidden.”

He has, he says, lost touch with his constituents: “Those people must think nationalism and independence is a really big thing. That’s what I don’t understand. The democratic process has a way of correcting itself. If I am a person who doesn’t understand his former constituents then it’s good that they are former constituents. I don’t think I’m qualified to be an MP now.”

Soon after talking to me, Harris is fired on stage. The swing to the SNP among the people he has represented since 2001 is 34 per cent, a swingometer-busting number but typical of the punishment meted out in the Emirates arena in the early hours of May 8. All seven Glasgow constituencies went from Labour red to SNP yellow.

The extremes of emotion felt by those in the hall are confirmed by a bearded, hunched man with an SNP badge fixed to his baggy blazer. “I’m quite enjoying other people’s suffering, which isn’t like me,” he says. “I’m not one for schadenfreude, but Labour had it coming.” He is standing apart from the mob of nationalists that have collected around Sturgeon. “This whole thing is so surreal . . . but I suppose she’s a celebrity now,” he says.Norman MacLeod, an SNP councillor for Pollokshields in the Southside of Glasgow who nods as he speaks like a man who has just been proved right, tells me, “We’ve been at it for more than 80 years. It’s our time now.” He doesn’t think the Union will last much longer. “Make no mistake,” he says “the referendum [which the pro-independence side lost] was the first step to independence. Tonight is the second.”

As the remaining Labour MPs are formally dethroned, SNP politicians who not long ago were foot soldiers in a fringe movement find themselves Members of Parliament. Their acceptance speeches are rigorously on message. The audience is treated to tales of “Tory cuts”: sobering stuff at four in the morning. Natalie McGarry, the newly-elected MP for Glasgow East, dedicates her victory to “every mother who has queued for a food bank, every member of the disabled community who has had benefits slashed, and  every lone parent who has suffered at the hands of austerity.” (She fails to mention the fact that her boyfriend is Glasgow’s sole Conservative councillor.)

News from south of the border makes much of this euphoria academic. The unexpected Conservative majority puts the value of SNP clout in the House of Commons at, well, zilch. Cuts will continue, whether the SNP likes it or not. And some do like it. On hearing the exit poll numbers earlier in the night, an SNP supporter watching the results at central Glasgow’s Yes Bar — independence lager is on tap — described the news as a “dream result”.

“Scotland won’t want to take another five years of the Tories,” he said. “We’ll be gone by 2020.”