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Byrd: On the eve of the Scottish referendum

BY MATTHEW BYRD | SEPTEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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Byrd is studying abroad at the University of Westminster in London.

For the capital of a political entity on the verge of potential amputation, London was quite calm on the evening of Sept. 18.

Not calm in the way Iowa City is at around 3 in the morning as Sunday turns to Monday, when the last buses from Chicago and Omaha roll in, unleashing bleary-eyed student travelers returning to their dorms through dead streets. But more akin to Iowa City on a Saturday night, with all the debauchery, packed-like-sardines Cambuses, excessive cologne and perfume, and vomit that entails.

Yet, naïvely in hindsight, I was expecting something a bit less than “calm,” considering that on this night the people of Scotland, which occupies a third of the island of Great Britain and is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) would vote, in record turnout, on a referendum deciding whether they should remain in union with their three neighbors or break away and become the world’s 197th sovereign state. 

Needless to say, the possibility of a 306-year-old marriage being annulled overnight seemed like something that would shake up any place involved, especially London, the demographic and cultural heart of the UK. So, I was planning on visiting Rob Roy, a pub that Yelp had informed me was a go-to spot for Scottish soccer matches, where I assumed some London Scots would assemble to watch the election results trickle in. Thought I’d probe some of them about their feelings towards the possibility of having to enter a second country the next time they stepped foot in their hometown, perhaps even enjoy a McEwan or two. Afterwards, I planned on heading to Trafalgar Square, the main public square in Central London that had played host to an anti-independence rally a few days before, see if I could catch any action, perhaps an unplanned gathering related to the referendum in some way, shape, or form. What I was expecting, I’m still not really sure.

When I got there, the supposed front door of the Rob Roy had been boarded up with a flat piece of wood that, considering the age of the wood, seemed to have been placed there since before there was even a United Kingdom to break up. The windows were similarly blocked and the sign above the door seemed to have suffered more neglect than most of us would wish on our worst enemies. So I decided to just head to Trafalgar Square.

The first thing that hit me, and I suspect hits most newcomers, when I exited the tube was the sheer size of Nelson’s Column, the 169-foot pillar that stands at the forefront of the Square, at the top of which rests a heroic-looking statue of Admiral Horation Nelson, the British admiral who died beating back Napoleon’s fleet at Cape Trafalgar, Spain. My eyes came down from the triumphant sandstone Nelson to the rest of the square, which was filled with: nothing. A couple of college students sitting at the base of the column, smoking e-cigs, some tourists taking pictures near the square’s fountains, and a whole lot of pigeons looking for scraps left by London’s litter-happy population. Looking at the square, you couldn’t have deciphered whether it was the night the union Nelson had died for was at stake or whether it was just some Thursday in god-knows-what year because who-the-hell cares.

Disappointed I flipped some of my (now useless) American dimes in the fountain for good luck on future endeavors, went home, cooked some popcorn, and went to bed. In the morning, I awoke to the news that Scotland, 55 percent to 44 percent with an 84 percent turnout, voted to remain in the United Kingdom. I went back down to Trafalgar Square, passing newsstands with headlines that couldn’t get enough of referendum analysis, and found the same sight as I had the night before except with fewer e-cig smoking peers and more pigeons.

Maybe things’ll be more exciting when Northern Ireland inevitably gets to decide its future in the UK. It certainly couldn’t be any more boring than Scotland’s turn.


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