On Thursday morning I’m woken by day three of a tension headache firing tentacles up the back of my neck and the base of my skull then burrowing into the cortex beneath. I am drenched in sweat, with dread balled in my stomach. My back throbs thanks to the ire of a decade-old spine break that has never fully healed. I spit blood, mixed with toothpaste, into the sink. My skin has broken out into the kind of volcanic fury not seen since my teenage years and my nails are bitten down to stumps. I love election campaigns. But polling days are their own special torture.
Scots will have had two referendums and two elections in 21 months, which means I’ve spent years on the road. These are hard, gruelling empty miles filled with limp service-station sandwiches and buttressed by soul-sapping chain hotel rooms. And I love it. The sheer joy of criss-crossing the country, the chance encounters, the backs slapped and hands shaken. For a geek like me — thirsty to learn new things at every stop, in every conversation and about every dot on the map we visit — it’s an opportunity to get drunk on the wonder of the new. Colleagues become the sort of brothers-in-arms that only months of in-the-trenches hard graft can bring. But every campaign has a reckoning. Elections are reports card that judge all of us. However much we can plead the mitigation of circumstances, momentum or the actions of others, there’s no escaping the verdict of votes cast.
I’ve marched my team of Scots Tories to the top of the mountain and — God love them — they’ve followed me to a man. Confronting the final 40-hour shift, I felt the burden of that reckoning heavily. Dante should have had a special circle of hell reserved for those who dare to dream at elections, and then see those dreams shot down and the corpses strafed to make sure.
I walk into the polling station with Jen, my partner, clutching her hand as a bank of photographers flash us. Once inside, I duck behind a pillar so they don’t clock that I’ve no vote to cast (mine went by post weeks ago). I then spend my hours as a sentry at various polling stations in a seat I hope to win, campaigning with my fixed air-hostess smile and saying a cheery ‘good morning’ every three seconds as voters filter past. I try to keep score. The ones stopping to chat are a mental mark in the ‘for’ column. Those who ignore me and stare at their feet are in the ‘against’. Going by mental maths, it’s close, but the Presbyterian Scot in me knows it’s worse to hope. It’s the hope that kills you.
Weather tales and gossip are traded within the team like football stickers. ‘It’s raining in Dumfries but sunny in Annan. That’s got to be good for us.’ ‘Mebbe, but what about Biggar?’ As the close of poll ticks nears, the frenetic activity seems pointless; if someone hasn’t voted by 9.40 p.m., they probably won’t by 10 p.m. It doesn’t stop our pace of campaigning stepping up, just in case. At 10 p.m. the window creaks, clangs and is bolted.
This is Schrödinger’s result time: any outcome is possible. So I pull on my suit for the count at Edinburgh Central, sweating under the starch. I follow the old rule: never jinx an election result by writing an acceptance speech. My crumpled concession notes will have to do. As I’m dragged from gantry point to gantry point, across television networks, my picture of election night is more fractured than those watching at home. One result relayed by phone brings a guttural yelp of ‘fucking yaaassssss!!!’ It is a bit too loud. Half a dozen photographers canter over. I refix the mask and hide behind my suit.
I counted all my MSPs out and I’m there, like a colour sergeant watching over troops bivouacked up behind enemy lines, counting them all back. And then some. We end up with 31 Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament, more than twice the number we started with this morning. I can barely believe it, but I have to. I couldn’t be happier, yet I’m empty inside.
I leave the hall and blink into light, as disorientated as an audience leaving a darkened theatre after a matinee. Has night passed? Daytime television starts. Then the teatime shows. Then I can hit the sofa, swaddled in fleecy PJs, the lullaby of trash TV in the background and, finally, some rum. Halfway through my second glass, I realise I’m already woozy: half a wine gum would have done it. I lurch through to a bed strewn with three different outfits from the time since I last slept. Lying down, it strikes me: my tension headache has, finally, gone.
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