IT is 6.20am on a dreich Friday morning in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth exhibition centre. Standing in front of the plastic planets and dinosaur kitsch, is Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond. He assembles his tired features into his best ‘brave face’ as he concedes defeat in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

“It was a triumph for democracy”, he announces, with typical Salmond chutzpah. Eyebrows shoot skywards amongst the many UK and international journalists present. Didn’t they just lose? What is he on? But he was right; it was.

The impact of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, arguably the most significant single political event in 300 years of Scottish history, reverberates today, even through the fog and confusion of Brexit. Scotland changed forever during that “festival of democracy” as even many unionist commentators described it.

Scots rediscovered their identity as a nation, with a distinct history, value system and political culture. The referendum campaign saw an awakening of self-confidence and national purpose. A realisation, indeed, that Scotland was already a viable country, albeit one which lacks economic and political autonomy.

OK, it might not have felt that way at the time. Many independence supporters were devastated by the referendum result. Some experienced severe depressions and even nervous breakdown. But just consider the aftermath.

The referendum led directly to the quintupling of the membership of the Scottish National Party, and to the Tsunami election of 2015, in which the unionist parties were all but obliterated. They’ve never recovered. As the Unionist commentator, John McTernan remarked ruefully in 2015: “The losers are strutting around like victors and the winners look like battered and bruised losers”. If this was defeat, then Scotland could do with more of it.

The referendum was a near-death experience for the UK establishment. A YouGov poll in the final week of the 2014 campaign suggested that Yes had edged into a very narrow lead. This prompted the leaders of the main Westminster parties, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, to dash across the border in blind panic to save the Union. Scots of all persuasions regarded this penitent invasion with wry amusement.

Literary Unionists, and celebrities such as David Bowie and Eddie Izzard, appealed to Scots: “please don’t go”. Liberal commentators in the Guardian condemned the “siren song of reactionary nationalism”.

The Harry Potter author JK Rowling portrayed Scotland as an unhappy wife: “In the heady position” she wrote in a much-publicised epistle, “of the spouse who looked like walking out, but decided to give things one last go”. Well, that worked out well. The prodigal spouse ended up being thrown out of the European home and forced to cohabit with the blonde charlatan, Boris Johnson.

The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in his hectic sojourns North, insisted that he “loved Scotland”. He apologised for being, in his own words, an “effing Tory”, and appealed to Scots not to vote Yes just because people like him were running Westminster. “I won’t be here forever”, he promised. He was right about that, at least.

Finally, in what looked like the dying days of the Union, the former Labour PM, Gordon Brown, thundered across South Central Scotland like a manic street preacher. The Union was a progressive force, he cried in emotional appeals to former Labour voters.

The UK had delivered the National Health Service, pensions, devolution and the fight against fascism in World War Two. “Tell the nationalists” he railed, “this is not their flag, their country, their culture, their streets”. He’s still telling them today.

Brown’s efforts – especially the infamous “Vow” which he inspired with its promise of a form of federalism – were not in vain, of course. The Yes campaign lost the 2014 referendum, and by a significant margin of 55% to 45%. This 10-point margin of victory for the Union could have ended the matter once and for all. The Better Together campaign insisted that it had. But the numbers didn’t tell the whole story.

The first thing I noticed, on that damp Edinburgh morning five years ago was the almost complete absence of any obvious celebration of the Union being saved. The precincts of the Scottish parliament were almost deserted. I counted one lost soul draped in a union flag who rapidly departed the scene. This posed a problem for the TV crews of all nations who had gathered in the tent city outside Holyrood. Where was the triumphalism? Where are the crowds? How do we illustrate this victory for the UK?

Yet in the weeks prior to the referendum, Holyrood had taken on the appearance of a lively civic square. Sizeable gatherings of Yes campaigners, waving Saltires, European Union flags and Catalan colours, conducted impromptu debates with passers-by about the merits of self-government. At the other end of the central belt, Glasgow’s George Square had become a mini Tiananmen Square.

Yes campaigners gathered daily to tell stories, sing songs and hear speeches from people who had made the conversion to Yes. There was a carnival atmosphere.

This lack of unionist triumphalism hinted at the real story of the 2014 referendum. The two million voters who turned up to reject the Scottish Government’s prospectus for independence clearly did not feel in the mood to celebrate.

Yes, they had “dodged a bullet” as many put it. But they were not expressing any great enthusiasm for the Unionist status quo.

Better Together had fought an entirely negative campaign based on Treasury projections of financial loss, collectively known as Project Fear.

The Yes campaign, by contrast, adopted a defiantly positive approach, insisting that Scots would be living in an independent country with valuable natural resources, an educated workforce and one of the highest GDPs per head in the OECD.

The chaos of Brexit has made all the arguments against Scottish independence sound hollow, as Scotland is dragged out of Europe against its will. Scots were told that only by voting No could they guarantee continued membership of the European Union. Well, now we know. Whatever happens in the next few years we can be sure of one thing: Scots will not be fooled again.

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