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“I'm the only Yes in the village”: speaking to swing voters and activists in the Scottish Borders

Along the Anglo-Scottish border from Dumfries to Berwick, activists and swing voters give their opinions on the Scottish independence question.

Politics in the Anglo-Scottish Borders has been shaken up. Photo: Getty

The damp air darkens the sandstone of Dumfries as a shower sweeps in from Cumbria over the Solway Firth. In the backroom of the First Base drop-in centre next to the River Nith, Mark Frankland sips a mug of instant coffee, a red Yes campaign badge on his jacket.

The founder of this combined food bank, drugs advice point and family refuge is voting for independence, explaining why in his native Lancashire accent:

“Even growing up in Blackburn, I was taught to have a healthy distrust of London and the power it held. I remember going down as a Liverpool fan in the Eighties and having twenty-pound notes waved in my face… it’s still like that today it seems, and this is a chance to break away from that.”

Frankland’s centre distributed 450 food parcels last month, and will give out as many again in the run-up to the independence referendum on 18 September. Despite the picturebook landscapes, Dumfries and Galloway has the highest deprivation levels of anywhere in Scotland outside of inner-city Glasgow. This is former coal country, with old mining villages alternating with settlements of estate cottages and the holdings of the Duke of Buccleuch.

The following evening, Frankland is due to share a platform at a local pub with the maverick socialist politician Tommy Sheridan. In a Labour seat and in traditionally Union-minded country, independence supporters hope that reaching out to those left behind can swing the vote.

Down the road in Gatehouse of Fleet lives the novelist Karen Campbell. She moved to Dumfries from Glasgow a few years ago, and since the referendum was called has come out as a local voice on the Yes side. “It sometimes feels like I am the only Yes in the village,” she says of the new-found engagement. “When I moved down here, I was surprised by how mixed it was with English and Scottish people, but you go to events now and find English people backing Yes too and Scots being very against. The conversation here is about need though, not identity.”

If Yes supporters are relying on economic realities, the No campaign is keen to stress Anglo-Scottish links. Behind a car park by a retail village in Gretna, the Conservative MP Rory Stewart has financed the Hands Across the Border cairn. There is a ring of stones six feet high, and passersby are invited to place a rock on top to mark the enduring Union. A visitors' book sits under a gazebo with Stewart’s name printed on it and the messages on the cairn range from painted Union flags to the more unsettling ‘one nation, one blood” engraved on a boulder.

From Gretna it is a short drive up to Langholm, a small town nestled in the hills on the River Esk. This is the birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid, modernist poet and one of the founders of SNP forerunner the National Party of Scotland. Far from being a hotbed of nationalism though, people in Langholm are tight-lipped about the referendum. At the local arts centre two Scottish women and their English husbands sip milky coffee. All they are prepared to say is that a lot of people are still to make up their minds. Politics is not something the Borders likes discussing.

One person who has made up their mind is Philip Gunn, a Yes-supporting Staffordshire native who runs a gallery on Langholm’s main street.

“There are two main factors of equal importance. The residents of Scotland could elect a government fully accountable to the people of Scotland, and the nuclear weapons issue. As an English person living in Scotland I have no axe to grind – I just think it would be great for Scotland. “

Even this close to the border the labour-drain south is tangible. Both of Gunn’s children have had to move to England for work, and he would like to see the Scottish economy grow and offer them a chance to come home. Above the town a memorial to MacDiurmid faces a row of wind turbines across the valley. It is this combination of old arguments of national self-determination and the promise of a vibrant high-tech economy that the SNP and their Green and non-aligned allies hope can make the difference.

Enthusiastic No supporters are hard to come by though. At the Conservative Club in Selkirk, a member and Better Together activist who wishes to remain anonymous leans over the table: “Dare I say it, but there are people here who will be voting Yes,” he whispers. Of the four men sipping lager at the bar to stay out of the afternoon rain, none look like David Cameron’s kind of Conservative. The agreement is that the vote is going to be extremely close, and the Borders’ traditional ties to England will play a smaller role than popularly assumed.

“The case for No has not been well-made. There are times when Cameron speaks and he just sounds patronising,” he says.

The Conservative Club looks down onto the valley of the Ettrick Water and the Bannerfield Housing Estate. It is in these areas that the “natural majority” for independence described by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon live; people who independence supporters believe stand to benefit from self-government and a break with Westminster. Although the Borders usually vote Tory or Liberal, those unaccounted for at general elections are seen as vital to a Yes victory.

Over on the English side of the border in Cornhill-on-Tweed, people are watching with interest. John Hardy, a retired surveyor with property on both sides and a grandson of a Labour MP in the first post-war government, says people are wary of the risks.

“There is a worry about things like tax regimes and exchange rates. People cross the border every day to work, and what happens if the Scottish taxman asks you to pay as well as the English one?” 

John is typical of the transnational Border dwellers who until now have never been forced to consider where their national and financial loyalties lie. His concerns are mirrored by Jock Law, a retired picture-framer in Coldstream where the border hugs the River Tweed.

“I’m not saying I wouldnae like Scotland to be independent, I just don’t think it could be”. Jock, like many on the Scottish side of the border, feels the practicalities of independence are the problem, not the idea itself.

Due north from Coldstream lies the prosperous town of Duns, home to Green Yes campaigner Pauline Stewart. Life is good for most people at this end of the border, but the activists are still out in force. Irrespective of the result, she says that the independence referendum has blown away the old the certainties of Borders politics:

“I know many people, none of whom are young, who will be voting for the first time in their lives.”

Like Mark Frankland in Dumfries, she is affiliated to the Radical Independence Campaign and not the SNP. She rejoined the Scottish Green Party after it decided to back independence, and is one of the many activists re-engaged after years in the political wilderness. Although she remains pessimistic about whether the Borders can swing to Yes, there is a feeling that the two sides of the border are already diverging in terms of political engagement and belief that change is possible.

In Peebles, an hour south of Edinburgh, Yes and No activists are out on a Saturday afternoon vying for people’s votes. “It’ll be a catastrophe,” shouts a man towards the Yes Scotland stall opposite the Post Office. This is not fertile Yes country, but the gains are steady. Even in this wealthy corner of the Borders, there is still a local food bank, and just like in Selkirk there are people the Yes campaign has its eye on who are disillusioned with Westminster and London. Thursday 18 September will determine if Scotland becomes independent, but the campaign has already transformed debate on the north side of the Tweed, and old loyalties are fading in the new world of Scottish politics.

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