Debate rages in Berwick-upon-Tweed

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

At England’s most northerly engineering company, a stone’s throw from the border in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the independence debate is hotting up.

Bill Parkin, co-founder and managing director of SWP Engineering Services and a director of Berwick Rangers football club – the only English team playing in the Scottish League – believes Scottish independence is “an absolute nonsense”.

The company’s technical engineering manager, Jim Young, resident across the border in Kelso, is just as vehement, but in support. “There’s much more money coming out of Scotland to England than there is coming out of England going to Scotland,” he insists.

On one point, however, they can agree: Berwick, for centuries a political and economic football between the English and the Scots, is out on a limb.

The town, almost equidistant between Edinburgh and Newcastle and a mere two and a half miles from the border – is near, and yet so far, from Scotland’s free prescriptions and care of the elderly and free university education.

“We’re quite envious of the Scottish,” says Sarah Watson, proprietor of Audela, a Berwick restaurant.

The town, Scotland’s leading commercial centre in the 13th century and the biggest focus of national defence spending during the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th, changed hands at least 13 times between 1174 to 1482 and only became legally part of England in 1836.

History has bequeathed Berwick stunning buildings and monuments but today local wages, and influence, are low. “Asset rich; money poor,” summarises John Robertson, proprietor of Robertsons, a local clothing and haberdashery store.

The Berwick accent, like its 11,600 residents, blends Scottish and northern English; the border, for all the saltires on flagpoles and the Failte gu Alba sign beside the A1 heading north, is very porous.

Many people working in Berwick live in Scotland and many Scottish residents shop in Berwick. Gavin Jones, co-founder of Jones and Jones, a Berwick-based tea and coffee hamper retailer, says 40 per cent of banknotes in his till are Scottish.

At the Maltings theatre and cinema, nearly half the audience for some shows comes from Scotland, says Matthew Rooke, chief executive. Yet already devolution has blocked his access to any Scottish arts or apprenticeship funding.

The outcome of the independence vote matters greatly to the town’s inhabitants but they are acutely aware of their impotence to influence it.

The disparity in regulations in Scotland and England is already an irritant; Scotland’s are mostly judged more rigid. Any prospect of border controls, currency changes and an increase in differential tax regimes worries local businesses.

Some, like SWP and nearby Maden Eco, a renewable energy and construction company, estimate that 75 per cent of their work is in Scotland.

For Dougie Watkin, a farmer near Berwick with 70 acres of land in England and, just over the River Tweed, 700 acres rented in Scotland, the implications of an independent Scotland outside the European Union are almost too big to contemplate. “One hundred per cent of my profits depend on EU subsidies,” he says.

At present Mr Watkin’s 3,000 lambs enjoy free movement across the local border bridge. But during past outbreaks of foot-and-mouth he noticed how quickly cross-border attitudes hardened. “People think it can’t happen but it doesn’t take much to spark deterioration.”

Berwickers’ predictions of the vote vary. In the event of a Yes vote, if higher taxation ensued, that could boost Berwick’s astonishingly cheap housing market by encouraging more Edinburgh workers to embrace the 45-minute direct rail commute.

Most are apprehensive about a vote in favour of independence. But Ed Swales, secretary of the now-disbanded Berwick-based Kings Own Scottish Borderers regiment, is urging people to “think bold”, think free trade port, offshore financial services.

Kings Edward I and Edward III used Berwick as a meeting place, so why not modern politicians? Berwick, he says, offers “neutral ground”. “It’s the natural location in which to negotiate.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.