Council chiefs concerned about threat of hard border between England and Scotland

Leaders of councils on both sides of the Scotland-England border have voiced concerns over the prospective threat to free travel between the two countries posed by the latest push by nationalist Scots for independence.

Tuesday, 1st September 2020, 11:44 am
Updated Wednesday, 2nd September 2020, 3:56 pm
Nationalist activists James Connelly and Sean Clerkin staging a protest at the Scottish-English border north of Berwick in July.

Those concerns were sparked by Airdrie and Shotts MSP Alex Neil, the Scottish Government’s cabinet secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners’ rights from 2014 to 2016, insisting that if an independent Scotland rejoined the European Union, as it would wish to, there would be a need for a customs barrier in the middle of Britain.

According to polling, more Scots now wish to go it alone than to remain in the United Kingdom, reversing the result of 2014’s independence referendum, and with Scottish National Party policy being to seek rejoin the EU, that has raised fears of a physical border being erected for the first time since Hadrian’s Wall was completed 1,892 years ago.

National identity has often been a grey area in communities either side of the border over the centuries and even now, so the prospect of barriers being put up is a cause of concern for the leaders of councils for the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and Cumbria. 

Airdrie and Shotts MSP Alex Neil, formerly Holyrood cabinet secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners' rights.

Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam said: “Cumbria and Northumberland are hugely important for the economy here, and places like Kielder Forest and Hadrian’s Wall are huge attractions for people from all over the country, and world, to come to the border country. 

“There’s a huge number of people who come up from England to the Borders for relaxation and tourism.

“When you live here, you realise there is no border here. People here don’t see the border, and they certainly don’t pay attention to it.

“I think people are living in cloud-cuckoo land if they think Scotland becoming independent is an easy, straightforward process.

“It’s a very glib statement to make when there are so many economic, cultural and infrastructure links across the communities in the borders which are reliant on each other.”

Elaine Murray, leader of Dumfries and Galloway Council, agrees with the Tweeddale East councillor, saying: “The east of Dumfries and Galloway is very closely tied to Cumbria, and Carlisle in particular, and there are some people who live in Carlisle and work in Dumfries and Galloway too. 

“We have a lot of people who work either side of the border, so it would be very serious indeed, both economically and in terms of people’s lifestyle here. 

“It’s very important for us to have an open border but also for our visitors. In terms of tourism to the region, a lot comes from the north of England. 

“I would also be very concerned about the border to the west of Dumfries and Galloway with Northern Ireland.  

“If it was the case that Scotland was independent and Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK, that would be a big problem for us. 

“It’s a major route for freight, especially animals, as part of the agriculture industry.”

Stewart Young, leader of Cumbria County Council, added: “Personally I don’t want to see Scotland leave the union. My family historically comes from Annandale, Lockerbie, Ecclefechan, that area.

“A lot of people have those family connections either side of the border. 

“There’s a lot of people in the south of Scotland who work in Carlisle as it’s the biggest population centre in the area.

“We’ve discovered though a recent Covid-19 outbreak at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle that there is a sizeable number of hospital staff who actually live in Scotland, and a border would have made things a lot harder.

“On a separate note, what comes with a physical border is smuggling, like what used to happen before the union and what always happens when there’s a difference in tax rates or tariffs. 

“It happens in Ireland, between the republic and Northern Ireland, due to the difference in tax, and, as in Ireland, it would be impossible to police. 

“Nicola Sturgeon kept implying she would close the border in response to coronavirus, and I saw the people holding ‘keep England out of Scotland’ banners, but the reality is you couldn’t physically close that border. You’d have to build something like the Berlin Wall.

“It’s real wild country up there, with hundreds of isolated and rural crossings.”

The SNP was contacted and asked four questions – would an independent Scotland seek an open border with the UK, would Scotland in the EU seek an open border with the UK, would English schoolchildren still be able to enrol in the Scottish education system and how could Scotland police a closed border?

In response, the party’s depute leader, Keith Brown, MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, said: “The overwhelming majority of people in Scotland oppose Brexit, and we believe that the best way to build a more prosperous and equal Scotland is to be a full, independent member of the EU.”

An SNP spokesperson added: “In regards to your other questions, the Scottish Government has no plans to close the border either now or post-independence.”