One week from polling day across the border, Berwick is braced for problems ahead if there is a Yes vote for Scottish independence.
With opinion polls indicating that next Thursday’s referendum is too close to call, the establishment of a separate sovereign state north of Lamberton has suddenly become a realistic prospect.
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith believes the result “could have profound consequences for Berwick and the Borders.”
But on a visit to the Berwick Advertiser office this week, Ayton-based Scottish government minister Paul Wheelhouse insisted cross-border ties would be largely unaffected by independence.
As media coverage intensifies and the referendum race enters the home straight, international journalists and TV news crews from around the world have been descending on Berwick in droves to gauge opinion in England’s most northerly town.
Business leaders in north Northumberland are waiting and watching with interest. Many of them fear for the future, but most are unwilling to comment publicly about potential problems independence would cause.
Sir Alan Beith, however, repeats Unionists warnings today about currency, border controls and cross-border public services.
“There might be Scottish pounds after independence, but their value would fluctuate below or above that of the English pound,” he writes. “It really would be like changing holiday money, but on an everyday basis.”
He also warns that border checkpoints could not be ruled out if Scotland opts for independence.
“If one of our two nations was in the EU and the other was not, border control would be necessary,” he writes.
“If the UK government had no confidence in the Scottish government’s immigration or security policy, border controls could become necessary.”
Sir Alan also believes cross-border public services would be put at risk.
He states: “It is quite difficult to overcome cross-border bureaucratic obstacles within a single state, but I believe it would be a lot more difficult across a boundary between two sovereign states.”
Mr Wheelhouse, acknowledges that cross-border concerns have been raised by voters on the Scottish side of the border. But the SNP politician, who says he often shops in Berwick, is confident existing arrangements between the Borders and Northumberland would be largely unaffected by independence.
“We have a good story to tell in terms of those relations, and the continuing nature of an open border,” he said.
“Different tax arrangements are common place across Europe in terms of cross-border working and there have been no problems there.”
He also believes an independent Scotland would “hopefully” be able to continue the current relationship between the two health services on either side of the border.
But many members of the public in the Berwick area are unconvinced.
Andrew Martin, 46, from Tweedmouth, fears for Berwick’s economy.
“If Scotland gets its own tax raising powers and decides to set taxes at a lower rate or reduce its own VAT, goods and service would be cheaper just a few miles to the north,” he said.
“Berwick has always been the communication hub for the north of Northumberland and the south east of the Scottish Borders. If things are different on either side of the border it causes a real issue.
“I don’t think the impact on north Northumberland has been properly explored.
“A Yes vote could benefit us on this side of the border. But a No vote and a new devolution plus arrangement could have a real impact.”
So Berwick would benefit from a Yes vote?
“It would really depend whether or not Scotland could raise the funds required to balance the books. If not, tax and VAT would go up. Alex Salmond looks towards Norway, but the have an income tax rate of 50% and a higher rate of VAT.”
Some small businesses in the Borders are understood to have already registered a new address in Northumberland to guard against the prospect of being entangled in red tape in the event of a Yes vote and the potential for economic problems in immediate aftermath.
But on the Northumberland side of the border, most business leaders are simply waiting and watching with interest.
Terence Pardoe is chief executive at Coastal Grains. Based at Belford, the co-operative stores and markets grain for members on both sides of the border.
“We have no view on it until there is a vote one way or another and then have to see what transpires and how it may affect us,” he said.
“If there is a Yes vote, there will have to be a period of re-organisation, and we do not yet know what will be involved in the transfer of centralisation. If there is a No vote, then the assumption is that nothing will change to affect the business.
“It would therefore be a waste of time planning something which we do not know how it will evolve.”
Very few business leaders are prepared to express their fears publicly. Indeed, one of the biggest employers in Berwick told the Advertiser this week that it was company policy not to comment about a “current political event”.
But the Scots who live in Berwick are happy to have their say.
Marion Black, 56, is a Scot who has lived in East Ord for 27 years. She would be undecided if she did have a vote. She also believes the potential implications for Berwick, if Scotland does opt for independence, have been exaggerated.
“I don’t think much would change,” she said. “We’ve had stories like this before. When free personal care for the elderly and free tuition fees were introduced under devolution, people said there would be an influx of people moving from Berwick to Scotland and that house prices would up over the border. But it never happened. The impact won’t be as big as people say.
“In the short to medium term, I don’t think independence would have a big impact.
“I love Berwick and I love living in Berwick. People don’t always move or change their life solely for economic reasons.”
“It’s nice in a way because I’m interested in the debate, but I don’t have the responsibility of making up my mind. My heart says yes, and my head says no. If I did live in Scotland I’d be torn.”
Stephen Hope was born in Edinburgh but now lives and works in Berwick. He is employed by his dad at the Sporran Gift Shop on Church Street, selling Scottish memorabilia to the tourists.
“Independence could be bad for Berwick,” he said. “But it would depend on the strength of the currency Scotland chooses to use. If it is a weak currency, though, the Scots would come over the border to do their shopping, so that might benefit Berwick. it is hard to say. But if I was up there I’d definitely vote No.”
Source – Berwick Advertiser, 13 Sept 2014