Dreams of generations to face test of reality in Scottish independence vote

For many Yes campaigners dream of independence has been lifelong

Colin Stevenson and David McEwen-Hill in the Yes Scotland campaign office in Argyll. Photograph: Mark Hennessy

Colin Stevenson and David McEwen-Hill in the Yes Scotland campaign office in Argyll. Photograph: Mark Hennessy


For David McEwen-Hill (72) the cause of Scottish independence is not a passing fancy but rather has been a lifelong dream, its chances of being realised having ebbed and flowed throughout his life.

In 1967 he was living in Hamilton, then one of the Labour Party’s safest seats, when Winnie Ewing won a byelection there for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Three years later he was her election agent in a failed bid to retain the seat in a general election, an experience he remembers proudly as he sits in Yes Scotland’s spartan offices in Dunoon.

The office in the Argyll town opened in October 2012, “the first in Scotland”, says colleague Colin Stevenson (70) proudly. His surname, he points out, is spelled with a v. “The ‘ph’ spelling is the southern variety.”

With coffee made, the two men speak about a shared ambition. McEwen-Hill joined the SNP at 17 on the day he enrolled in Glasgow’s School of Art.

His grandfather, who escaped grinding poverty in Glasgow when he was sent to stay with relatives in Armagh, was a seminarian in Dublin during the War of Independence, the retired teacher says.

Nationalist sympathies in the 1960s hindered careers: “I was warned by the local authority that my SNP membership wasn’t appropriate, even though my headmaster was a Labour candidate,” he says.

In the end he went to Nigeria: “There was no promotion here, so I left. I had been asked to be a Labour candidate – but that was because I was a Catholic teacher in a Catholic school, no more.”

Nationalist sympathies

Stevenson imbibed nationalism from his father, who had fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa during the second World War but held nationalist sympathies all his life.

“By the time I was 12 I knew all about William Wallace, Robert the Bruce: it was real to me,” he says, adding that his political sympathies did not help later when he had a brewery job. “I was a figure of fun.”

Today, both men campaign daily in Argyll – McEwen-Hill is confident the referendum will be passed, Stevenson is less so but desires it just as much: “I’ll be devastated if we don’t,” he says, eyes cast to the floor.

Stevenson dissects the opinion polls, all of which except one over the past two years have reported that the independence campaign will be defeated when voters go to the polls on September 18th.

Like others, he and McEwen-Hill argue the polls failed to pick up on the tide of support that delivered an overall majority to the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Holyrood election.

“The polls are based on landline calls, so they are weighted in favour of the elderly and women – where the Yes campaign is not at its strongest,” Stevenson says.

“People like us have been at this for years, but what is really incredible is the number of people now involved who have never taken part in politics before,” he adds.

Even the English, who make up a third of the population on Mull – nicknamed revealingly as “the officers’ mess” by some Scottish nationalists – favour independence, they say.

“They can buy a nice place there from what they can get for selling a tiny shed down south,” says McEwen-Hill, “and who can blame them? But they still favour Yes, so this isn’t about anti-Englishness.”

Dastardly deeds

For both men, their opponents are capable of all dastardly deeds imaginable – a reported £400,000 bet on a No result is fictitious, designed solely to take the wind out of the Yes side’s sails, they say.

If Scotland votes No it will never again get the chance to vote Yes, McEwen Hill says. “They’ll make sure of that, the London crowd.”

For Stevenson, the British government “is the most experienced, the most capable in the world at dividing and ruling by every underhand action that you can imagine”.

“They do not want to keep us in the union so that they can go on subsidising us. They want us in the union because it is their interests that we should be in the union.”

Today’s commemoration in Glasgow Cathedral, attended by Queen Elizabeth, to mark the beginning of the first World War riles both men, who are quick to point to Scotland’s heavier losses.

Stevenson illustrates the passions that have been fired, ones that may take time to subside afterwards: “In Ireland you had the empire Irish who laughed at those in the GPO. Well, we have empire Scots who want to stay in the union because it is in their personal interests to do so. Well, I am not going to sacrifice my country for a few shillings.”

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