'No one is talking about it': has Sturgeon misjudged mood for independence?

Matthew Engel
The county’s results in the two referendums mirrored wider national trends. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In the land of the never-endum, they were counting votes again on Thursday morning. In an upstairs room at Alloa town hall, council workers were going through their election night counting rituals with a coffee-fuelled concentration. “It’s becoming a full-time job,” said one official.

Scotland’s council elections are still six weeks away – and the next referendum on independence is only a twinkle in Nicola Sturgeon’s eyes, and what may be a look of terror in Theresa May’s. This vote is to return two members from the county of Clackmannanshire to the Scottish youth parliament, set up in 1999 along with the actual Scottish parliament.

Clackmannanshire’s youth coordinator, Tracy Duff, was delighted by a huge increase in turn-out, up from the low hundreds to the low thousands: not a trivial number here. The population of “the Wee County” is 50,000.

Was this surge a sign that the Scottish National party, by demanding a second referendum, has once again tapped into all the aspirations of Scotland’s youth? Not according to Duff: it was a shift from internet voting to putting old-fashioned ballot boxes in schools and colleges.

And the ballot paper itself offered a clue. The five candidates had to list their three top priorities. Education, human rights and health and wellbeing recurred over and over. No one mentioned Brexit - or independence.

One candidate, 17-year-old Ross McIntyre, has been telling school assemblies that there should not be another independence referendum.

“I don’t feel we’re ready for it yet,” he said. “We’re still developing. Nicola Sturgeon should have accepted no for an answer.”

Clackmannanshire has claim to being a microcosm. In the 2014 independence vote, its result came close to the national percentage: 54 against, 46 for. Two years later at the referendum on Brexit, the county also spoke for the result across Scotland: 58-42 to remain. In between, at the general election, the Ochil and South Perthshire constituency joined in the country’s mass exodus from Labour to the SNP, and tossed out its well-established MP Gordon Banks.

Alloa suggests Sturgeon may not be reading her nation’s mood with her customary skill. Residents this week described a sense that Sturgeon was breaking the promise that the 2014 was a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity, and expressed a surprising indifference about the whole question of Brexit, as well as a growing ennui with politics in general.

This was not the Alloa of 2014: the town was alive that sunny September with yes posters and canvassers, who were greeted with almost unanimous nods and smiles on the doorstep. All misleading – as everyone discovered when wee Clacks, with its tiny electorate, declared first and set the pattern for the night.

This week Alloa’s once-thriving market, now much reduced even on a decent day, was down to half a dozen stalls, rooves flapping in a bitter wind.

Betty Reid, one of the pro-independence voters who also voted for Brexit, was still selling everything from fishing rods to rolling papers. But she has now changed her mind on independence. “Why leave the UK for someone else to tell us what to do?” she asked, which is a perfectly logical position awaiting a party to proclaim it. But she would not vote yes again. “I feel now we are not able to be self-sufficient. We’ve not got the industry.”

Next door, Robert Shearer on the meat stall was still in the yes camp, but he admitted enthusiasm seemed to be waning. “I do markets five days a week, and I don’t hear anyone talking about any more.”

Ali Asghar, who came to Scotland from Pakistan nearly 40 years ago, remained set against both independence and Brexit. “Companies get bigger and bigger. They can eat small companies, and small countries.”

Sandra Anderson, from the sweet shop, missed the last referendum on independence – she left Scotland 28 years ago and has only just returned. She is not anxious to discover what she missed: “Go through all that again? It’s not fair to the country, is it?”

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes