The People’s Election: Part 4, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

ON the last Friday of every July, Langholm hosts the Common Riding. In a throwback to the days of vicious Reiver battles with the English across the Border, the neat streets of brick houses and busy shops selling artisan chocolates and colourful tweed resound to a cacophony of horses’ hooves on asphalt and cheering crowds.Like many children growing in Langholm, Laura Ellis’s daughter loved the Common Riding. She dreamed of being the “principal”, carrying aloft a blue banner at the head of the party. Her mother, who owns a craft shop on the main street, told neighbours about the young child’s wish. They laughed and said: “The principal has to be man.” But why, pressed Ellis, is it always a man? The answer came: “Because it’s aye been.”

This sense of unbending Borders tradition – “It’s Aye Been”, meaning “it’s like that and it has always been” – extends to politics too. Where the rest of Scotland fell out of love with the Conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, the tree-lined valleys here have remained solidly blue.

Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale was the only Scottish seat to return a Tory MP, David Mundell, in the 2010 General Election. This sprawling constituency, created in 2005, crosses three local authority boundaries, taking in everything from the sparsely populated farming country around Langholm to the Edinburgh commuter towns of Peebles and Biggar and even a thin slice of urban Dumfries. Before David Mundell, one-time Tory chief whip Sir Hector Munro was the Westminster representative here for more than 30 years before stepping down in 1997.

While the battle between the SNP, Labour and, in places, the Liberal Democrats rages across Scotland, there seems little appetite for political change on a weekday afternoon in Langholm. Near the imposing town hall, formerly a tollbooth, which sits bang in the middle of the main street, forcing cars to weave around it, one woman nods emphatically when I ask if she will be voting Conservative.

“[Mundell] looks after the area,” she says. “You want anything done, you phone him and he does it.” Her friend agrees. He is worried about another referendum. “We are too close to England for that [independence]. It’s alright for the people in the north of Scotland, but our hospital is just over there.”

But the sense of sleepy permanence can be misleading, too. For four centuries, Langholm lay at the heart of the Debatable Lands, a 40-square-mile tract of territory that, as the name suggests, was claimed by both England and Scotland. The cross-Border banditry only ended with the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the wild men of the Marches came up against King James VI & I’s iron fist.

The radicalism did not end with the Reivers swinging from the gallows. The Covenanters found fertile ground in the soft Border soil. But over time the Debatable Lands were pacified. The belligerent reputation was replaced by a softer image of soporific bucolicism. The Borders, in the popular imagination, became a place where change happened slowly, if it happened at all. The area overwhelmingly voted No in the independence referendum last September. The bookmakers do not expect anything dramatic in May, either. Mundell is firm favourite to hold on.

On the winding road between Gretna and Annan, the car stereo is interrupted by traffic reports from BBC Radio Cumbria. There’s a tailback on the road to Keswick. An accident near Windermere. The names seem familiar yet foreign to my adopted Glaswegian ears. This is Border territory. Whatever Scotland’s future constitutional settlement, England will remain an integral part of life in this corner of the country.

In Annan, a tractor trundles down the main street, past solid terraces hewn of red sandstone. In the car park of the local Co-op almost a dozen SNP canvassers are gathered. It’s not even 11am and they have already been out delivering leaflets for the local candidate, Emma Harper. In normal election times the flame-haired nurse who lives outside Annan would have no hope in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale – the Nationalists barely scraped 10 per cent of the vote here last time around – but these are not normal times.

“The other candidates aren’t at the races at all. We are the only optimists who want a better Scotland,” says Harper, who returned to Scotland just over a decade ago after 14 years in California, bringing with her a US west coast sense of energy. The metallic SNP and CND badges on her jacket twinkle in the bright morning sun.

Harper’s election material stresses her 30 years’ nursing experience. She says: “I see the struggles that nurses have on the ward everyday. It is really challenging to be a nurse in the NHS right now.”

There are also particular local concerns at play: the unemployment that sends so many over the Border to work in Carlisle and further afield; food poverty; the ongoing decommissioning of Chapelcross. The plant, a few miles outside the town, used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Landowners are powerful in this part of Scotland, too. The Duke of Buccleuch controls some 270,000 acres, much of it running through the constituency. In 2008, Buccleuch was granted planning permission for 22 drilling sites in Canonbie, a picturesque village bisected by the River Esk. Extraction of the coal bed methane is on hold but locals worry that it could start soon.

“And that’s just phase one,” says Bill Frew, chairman of Canonbie and District Residents Association. “It’s feudal. The Duke owns everything. People work for him, or they live in his houses, or they’re tenant farmers. So they are disenfranchised and afraid to speak out.”

The SNP has become the party of protest for many fed up with the old ways. In Annan, SNP membership has soared since the referendum. A local party branch was recently reformed, having disbanded in the 1960s. The new chairman will be businessman Henry McClelland. A stocky, middle-aged man with a broad smile, McClelland is also in charge of Annan’s most famous institution: Annan Athletic football club.

Annan Athletic has “given the town profile” he says proudly. “On Sky Sports every Saturday you see Annan.” The side has reached three national semi-finals and two playoffs since joining the Scottish league in 2008, but more than that it has become a focal point of the community. McClelland is a firm believer in independence for Scotland. He says that he cried on September 19.

“The referendum isn’t going to go away,” he says. “There is going to be opportunities in the future. It won’t go away.”

Despite the strong vote for the Union in the constituency, Harper is profiting from the energy of the referendum. Her canvassers carry bright blue “Yes Scotland” clipboards. Many became politically active last year. Val is typical. Originally from Lancashire, she voted Labour for 35 years. Now she is firmly behind the SNP. “The Labour Party has diluted, diluted until it is just a shadow of the Tory Party,” she says.

But if Labour really are Tories in disguise, nobody has told Archie Dryburgh. The hirsute former union organiser at Chapelcross sits firmly on the left of the party. He supported Neil Findlay’s leadership campaign and speaks of his concerns about TTIP, the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that many fear could lead to the privatisation of vast swathes of the NHS.

He is worried about unemployment, the threat of community hospital closures and lack of broadband investment (“Never mind superfast broadband, some of the families just want broadband!”).

We meet outside a cafe in Gretna Green, a bagpiper playing as small groups of tourists drink tea in the sunshine. Just half a mile away lies the site of the worst rail disaster in UK history. On May 22 1915, signalmen’s error led to the catastrophic crash that claimed an estimated 226 lives. Many were members of the Leith Battalion of the Scots Guard, bound for Gallipoli. Dryburgh, an army veteran himself, is spearheading the centenary commemorations. “It’s going to be a poignant time around here,” he says.

Dryburgh is unlikely to be attending the Quintinshill disaster commemorations as the local MP. But the Dumfries and Galloway councillor says he will fight hard, and rejects any suggestion that Labour supporters should vote tactically to keep the SNP out. Mundell, he says, “has a great PR team behind him. [But] people want to see action, not words.”

Dryburgh is hoping to pick up disaffected LibDem voters; the party took almost a fifth of the vote in 2010 but are nowhere to be seen this time around. Ukip polled strongly in the region in last summer’s European Parliament elections but the party is not expected to pull up any trees in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale come May. Despite the party’s fiery anti-Conservative rhetoric, their candidate, Kevin Newtown, stood numerous times – unsuccessfully – for the Tories. Mundell remains the man to beat.

The assistant secretary of state for Scotland says: “I am making a case for why we need a strong UK Government with a clear economic plan, but also we need to speak out for this area because people here often feel marginalised from central government, whether it is in London or Edinburgh.”

Earlier this week, the House of Commons’ Scottish affairs committee reported that the tendency for Whitehall departments to neglect devolved issues in Scotland and for Holyrood to centralise power in Edinburgh had created “negative consequences” for the Borders.

Mundell says the SNP represent his strongest challenge. While there is a strong Tory vote in Tweeddale, the former Social Democratic Party councillor in Annandale and Eskdale (“I was young”) can also expect to win Unionist votes in Clydesdale, long a bastion of liberal leader David Steel, and Labour-leaning Dumfriesshire.

Being Scotland’s only Tory MP has unlikely advantages. “There has never been a disagreement within our Westminster Scottish Conservative group,” Mundell chuckles. But there are real difficulties too. The Tories’ recent adverts depicting Ed Miliband as Alex Salmond’s puppet have riled many. The campaign, orchestrated from London Conservative headquarters, is aimed squarely at marginal English seats. Mundell, however, is at pains to stress: “I don’t find on the doorstep people seeing it as an anti-Scottish message”.

Ironically, the Conservatives, implacably opposed to electoral reform, are hamstrung in Scotland by first-past-the-post. The party took more than 412,000 votes in 2010 General Election – barely 80,000 fewer than the SNP – but won just one seat. The LibDems, whose vote was far more concentrated, took 11 seats with just over 465,000 votes.

“Sometimes when people look from outside they think Conservative support in Scotland is one in 59 when it reality it is around one in six,” says Mundell.

But he admits that there is “no silver bullet” for Scottish Conservatives.

“It is about talking about the issues that are important to people and having a clear set of policies and a case to make”. Nevertheless, come May, the likelihood is that there will still be more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland.

LAST July, Rory Stewart, a former Black Watch officer and current Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, opened the Old Acquaintances Cairn in a field on the Scottish side of the Border at Gretna. The idea was to give “ordinary people the chance to show how they feel”. The cairn still stands, and is more impressive than in the weeks before the referendum. The piles of rocks painted red, white and blue reach up to 12 feet.

There have been reports of vandalism but the only trace of this on my visit was a single profanity scrawled on a rock that said, “thanks you all”.

Inside the cairn, a stone slab says Scotland and England should not be divided “like snarling curs”. Another proclaims “we’re better far together [sic]. United we must stay.” In the corner of a molehill-filled field the River Sark burbles away. You could toss a coin and hit England.

The cairn is deserted, but in the car park of the adjacent hostelry I meet Deirdre, a Northern Irish woman who lives near Annan. She is no fan of Mundell. “I’ve never seen him. Never met him. He sends a little newsletter every now and then saying ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that’. I just bin it.”

In May she will be sticking with Labour. “Ed Miliband isn’t a brilliant leader, but he beats David Cameron. And that’s what matters.”

While across Scotland voters seem to be turning away from once steadfast political beliefs, in the Borders it seems old certainties still hold. It’s aye been.