With an independent Scotland looking ever more likely, life on the Scottish side of the Borders has taken on an air of uncertainty – and that’s true of Berwick-upon-Tweed, too, England’s most northerly town.
“We’ve got Scots working here and English people across the border,” says Isabel Hunter, a town and county councillor in Berwick. “If there’s a Yes vote, what are people going to get paid in? Is it going to cost more to get paid?”
Berwick is famous for its hesitation over whether it is part of Scotland or England. It changed hands thirteen times before becoming definitively English in 1482. But even today local football team the Berwick Rangers play in the Scottish rather than the English league, and the native accent can sound more Scottish than northern.
“In Scotland people always say we’ve got a Geordie accent,” Hunter says. “Not meaning to be rude, but southerners always say we sound Scottish!”
At Martin’s the Printers, a book-printers in Berwick, Alice Purves is worried, too. “The more I hear, the more concerned I’m becoming,” she tells the New Statesman. “It’s very difficult and confusing.”
Purves, who lives in Scotland a “stone’s throw” from the border, not only works in Berwick, but has her GP and dental practice in England, too. “A lot of people where I live have Yes signs up, and I never thought I’d see that in the Borders.”
Phil Johnson, who is editor of both the Berwick Advertiser, the newspaper of the English town, and the Berwickshire News, which covers the historic Scottish county, also expresses uncertainty over the future. “Either way there’ll be huge implications for Berwick,” he tells the New Statesman. “The border will become more profound – life in Berwick will change.”
Johnson is not despondent, more realistic: “a lot of small businesses operate on both sides of the border. It’ll have a huge effect on how they operate. For some it might be a big advantage. For others it might not.”
Of more concern to Johnson is the nature of decision-making in Berwick. The town’s borough council was abolished in 2009, and its powers were transferred to the Northumberland County Council in Morpeth, over forty miles south of Berwick. “There’s a feeling Berwick gets a raw deal as part of the North East,” Johnson says. “Morpeth is much more industrial and Labour has strong support there, whereas Berwick is far more rural.” This is in contrast to the parliamentary constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which has been held by the Liberal Democrats since 1974 – and Labour has never won the seat.
Despite this dissatisfaction with the way Berwick is run, Johnson doesn’t reckon there would be any significant desire among the residents of Berwick to rejoin an independent Scotland. “I don’t sense that at all.” He also points out that an ITV poll in 2008 that suggested the people of Berwick would prefer to be part of Scotland only asked residents whether they would be more prosperous in Scotland. “I think you might get a different answer if you ask whether you’d like to be part of Scotland, rather than just better off.”
In the event of a Yes vote, there will certainly be difficulties for Johnston Press, the publishers of the Berwick Advertiser and the Berwickshire News, whose registered address is in Edinburgh, but whose headquarters are in London. But Johnson is more upbeat about the fate of the titles he edits: “I hope there’ll be so much interest in what happens on both sides of the border, we’ll sell a few more copies, and that’ll keep me happy!”