Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Scotland’s ‘Borderers’ steadfast for ‘No’

Coldstream, Scotland – Jock Law is in no doubt about which way he is going to vote in Scotland’s independence referendum on September 18.

“I’m against, definitely against,” the septuagenarian former soldier says, taking off his thick-rimmed glasses and shaking his head.

Few are as passionate in their support for the union with England as Law. A red, white, and blue Union flag with “Better Together” printed across it takes pride of place in the window of his onetime picture framing business on High Street, in the Scottish border town of Coldstream.

Just below, the faces of Scottish nationalist leaders Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have been superimposed onto a pair of cartoon sheep: “Don’t let this pair pull the wool over your eyes,” reads a handwritten sign.

But increasingly, nationalists are gaining ground across Scotland. The latest polls put the two sides neck-and-neck – a dramatic turnaround from just a month ago when the “Yes” side trailed by 22 points. A new poll released on September 10 placed the “No” camp only at 53 percent while the “Yes” side surged to 47 percent.

Financial impact

The referendum will almost certainly come down to economics – many Scots are wary of the financial impact of leaving the 300-year-old union – but in Coldstream these concerns are particularly hard felt. England is just a matter of metres away, across the babbling River Tweed that separates the two countries.

“I just don’t think independence is possible, we can’t afford it,” says Law.

Law worries if Scotland votes yes, the stolid stone bridge at the end of the town would become an international border crossing. He has other fears, too.

“There are a lot of people here on the border who work in England and vice versa. How will they pay their taxes? How will that work?”

Coldstream – like many of the picturesque towns and villages dotted along the 154km-long border between Scotland and England that was legally established in 1237 – has long celebrated its location on the edge of two countries. The first road sign on entering the town declares: “Welcome to Coldstream – The First True Border Toon.”

Locals often describe themselves as neither English nor Scottish, but “Borderers”. Many have family or business interests on both sides of the invisible boundary. The referendum, however, is forcing them to choose whether to stay in the United Kingdom, or join an independent Scotland.

New divisions

As the “No Thanks” stickers and “Yes” posters dotting the neat High Street attest, Coldstream is as divided as the rest of Scotland.

“From my standpoint, I don’t see what the benefit would be,” says Trevor Brunning, a father of four from North London who runs an army supply store on High Street. “I’d be worried about my business if we vote for independence.”

The border region has long been stony ground for Scottish nationalists. The area voted heavily against devolution in the ill-fated 1979 referendum. As many as 70 percent of those living near the border are opposed to Scottish independence, according to a poll conducted this summer.

In Dumfries, some 130km west along the border, Englishman Mark Frankland is an active campaigner for the “Yes” vote. “Independence would be good for Scotland – and for England,” said Frankland.

Having moved north with his wife and two children in 1996, Frankland now runs First Base Agency, a charity based in a former bakery beside the River Nith in the centre of Dumfries.

The centre offers drug, alcohol, and family counselling services. “Food donations urgently required,” reads a sign in the window. Last month, they gave out 450 food parcels. Eighteen-months ago, that figure was about 100.

This huge increase in demand was caused by the welfare reforms introduced by the coalition in Westminster, says Frankland. “There is virtually no policy in Edinburgh [the devolved Scottish parliament] that affects people’s ability to buy food.”

The independence debate has energised political neophytes such as Frankland as never before – particularly on the yes side, which has a huge manpower advantage over the pro-UK “Better Together” campaign.

‘Don’t change things’

On a busy Saturday in the prosperous market town of Peebles, the heart of the only constituency in Scotland represented by a Conservative MP, activists hand out “Yes” stickers and campaign literature from a large stall. Many locals walk by, but some stop to chat. Topics range from health and education to inequality and taxes.

“We have been packing out the halls all around,” says “Yes” supporter David Kenyon from nearby Walkerburn. “The Scottish people realise this is the biggest decision we will make.”

As if on cue, a teenage female bagpipe player breaks into a rendition of “Highland Cathedral”, a popular melody composed by a pair of German musicians that has been mooted as a possible national anthem for an independent Scotland.

“This is the toughest part of Scotland for ‘Yes’,” says independence activist Calum Kerr, 42. “The Borders has a strong tradition of ‘Aye Been’ – it’s always been you don’t change things.”

But Kerr, who combines a job in telecommunications with almost constant campaigning work, is upbeat about the prospects of pulling off a shock on polling day.

“From the very start I’ve been telling people, ‘we’re going to win this’. But now I really believe it.”

‘Functional not emotional’

A local “No” campaigner, who asked to be identified only as David, disagrees.

“For most Scots the union with England is functional, not emotional,” he says. “It is like a business transaction for me. I look at the sums, they don’t add up so you don’t do it.”

Alex Salmond has, he says, made too many unrealistic assumptions about everything from membership in the European Union, to sharing a currency with the UK.

“‘Yes’ Scotland are asking you to take a betting slip into the ballot box. ‘See that horse, I’m going to put everything on it.’ What will be the deciding factor on this will be economics. ‘Yes’ haven’t made the economic arguments,” he says.

Renowned for their reserve, many along the border with England are phlegmatic about the referendum. Where the independence debate in urban centres such as Glasgow and Edinburgh has often been heated, among the rolling hills and long valleys of “the debatable lands” between urban Scotland and England, the mood is markedly more temperate.

Traditionally, the region votes Liberal or Conservative, but the independence referendum is proving that in Scotland, old ideological ties are not as tight as they once were.

“I’m starting to get the feeling that it’s going to be really close,” says Jim Terras, chair of the Selkirk Conservative Club. “There are people in this club, even though it is a Conservative club, that are going to vote ‘Yes’.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.

Scotland’s ‘Borderers’ steadfast for ‘No’
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