Scottish town watches nervously as election looms

Europe's next 'hard border' could run by this quaint, historic crossroads town

For John Elliot, the town of Coldstream where he was born and raised is Scotland’s "only authentic border town”, a historic crossroads between England and Scotland on the scenic banks of the River Tweed.

The nearly invisible boundary on Coldstream Bridge is suddenly up for discussion. Depending on the outcome of elections next week, a "hard border" with customs checks at the gateway to an independent Scotland could be in prospect.

If it came to pass, Mr Elliot fears that the town’s unique character could be eroded.

“The history of this place is of to-ing and fro-ing all the time,” said Mr Elliot, 76, the chairman of Coldstream’s local history society. "The animosity that exists further north in Scotland towards the English doesn’t exist here.

“I would think that it would change that whole attitude if there were a hard border here."

Coldstream, a town of about 2,000 people on the Scottish side of the river, would be on the front line of Europe’s newest international border if Scotland voted for independence.

Voters go to the polls in a Scottish Parliament election on Thursday, with the ruling Scottish National Party seeking a mandate for its calls for a second independence referendum in a generation.

Coldstream historian John Elliot. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

A community that straddles the border 

Many people in Coldstream cross the border regularly because they live on one side of the river and work on the other.

Louisa Coates, 54, runs a shop called the Old Post Office Flower Room in Coldstream, but her home is on the English side of the border.

Her doctor is in Scotland and her dentist in England, and ambulances habitually cross the border to take patients in England to a Scottish hospital.

She worries that a hard border could affect her flower shop, which she opened in 2019 not long before the onset of the pandemic.

“If there’s a hard border, does that mean my deliveries don’t get here on time?” she asked.

But she voiced hope that the restrictions might be minimal. “If there’s no border control, then it wouldn’t make any difference at all."

Louisa Coates owner of The Old Post Office Flower Room on Coldstream High Street. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

Covid-19 made the border more noticeable than usual because England and Scotland each set their own lockdown policies.

Until April 26, non-essential travel from Scotland to England was banned under coronavirus restrictions imposed in December.

Trevor Brunning, 57, the owner of an army surplus shop called Walk This Way, said he had noticed a decline in business when pandemic-related travel restrictions were in force.

A permanent hard border would make things worse. “It goes without saying, it would be a disaster,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”

Locals see Coldstream as a stronghold of the anti-independence movement, or unionists.

When Scotland rejected independence at the referendum in 2014, 67 per cent of voters in the Scottish Borders region were opposed to the idea.

Trevor Brunning at his 'Walk This Way' army surplus store on Coldstream High Street. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

Unionists raise border concerns in election campaign 

The fiercely unionist Conservatives also do well in the Borders. At the most recent UK general election in 2019, Coldstream’s local MP John Lamont won the largest Conservative majority in Scotland.

He is now campaigning for his party in the Scottish election on May 6, which polls say the SNP is on course to win – but whether it will get an absolute majority to strengthen its case for another referendum is less clear.

Mr Lamont told The National that the border issue was a frequent concern of voters during the campaign.

“The border is just a line on the map, it’s not a real thing,” he said. “Our community, our economic unit, is something that straddles both sides.

“So the idea of border checks, or restrictions on our ability to cross the border, fills these people with a lot of anxiety and fear.

“We know it is there, people know where it is, but it’s not something that really exists in terms of practical reality.”

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglass Ross, during a media photo call in Coldstream. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

On Coldstream Bridge, the only visible signs of the border are a road sign welcoming visitors to Scotland and a plaque honouring it as the spot where the poet Robert Burns once travelled into England.

Mr Elliot said that people on either side retained their distinctive identities, and accents, even while remaining “completely integrated” in everyday life.

“Coldstream exists really because of the border,” he said. “It’s an extremely unusual feature.”

Mark and Hazel Stooker, who were visiting Coldstream from Newcastle, the nearest English city, said they often cross the border just for a day out.

In centuries gone by, the open border made Coldstream a destination for runaway weddings – like the more famous Gretna Green – because of Scotland’s looser marriage laws at the time.

It also has an enduring place in British history as the town that gave its name to the British Army’s Coldstream Guards.

The name comes from a 1660 episode in which a regiment marched from Coldstream to London, in order to restore Parliament and bring an end to a tumultuous decade in which Britain was ruled without a monarchy.

If the past few years sometimes felt similarly turbulent, the unionists see this as a reason to take a breather from bitter constitutional arguments.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson says that the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” vote which should not be repeated any time soon.

But the nationalists see things differently. In the SNP's narrative, Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union effectively nullified the 2014 referendum result, because the nature of the UK fundamentally changed.

Tourists look out over the River Tweed, which acts as the border between Scotland and England, towards Coldstream Bridge. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

For Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader and First Minister of Scotland, independence would mean a return to the EU instead of the isolation of Brexit.

She says that Scotland would still be part of the Common Travel Area, an arrangement that allows for free movement of people in the British Isles.

This would mean that people could continue to cross the 96-mile border, even if businesses face more bureaucracy.

Asked about the border issue during a televised debate on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon did not deny that there would be new obstacles to trade.

But she said: “The benefit of being independent in Europe is that we open up free trade again across 27 other countries, the world’s biggest single market.

“Brexit is all about narrowing our horizons. Independence is about expanding those horizons again.”

Analysts are less optimistic. Dr Thomas Sampson, an international trade expert at the London School of Economics, estimates that the economic effect of a Scottish exit would be two to three times greater than that of Brexit.

“That’s primarily because the rest of the UK is a much more important trade partner for Scotland than the EU,” he said.

“If Scotland rejoins the EU, then the border between England and Scotland will become the EU’s external border, and that means that as an EU member state, Scotland would be required to impose customs checks at that border.

“Because independence would increase trade costs with the rest of the UK, that would be harmful to the Scottish economy.”

A 'Scotland Welcomes You' sign at the Scottish end of Coldstream Bridge. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

Tricky negotiations loom if Scotland breaks away

Britain went through years of fractious negotiations to prevent a "hard border" in Ireland, which all sides found unthinkable because it risked inflaming sectarian tensions.

The eventual solution was to make special arrangements for Northern Ireland, which mean checks now take place on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

Experts say there is one way that Scotland could dodge a hard border with England: by seeking a looser arrangement with the EU rather than rejoining as a full member.

But this is not the option favoured by SNP leaders, whose manifesto offers voters an “escape from Brexit”.

“Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to the problem of how an independent Scotland could achieve close integration into the EU without causing disruption to its trade with the rest of the UK,” a briefing by the Institute for Government said.

The question of which currency would be used by an independent Scotland is also a major talking point in the debate.

Mark and Hazel Stooker from Newcastle, in England, during a visit to Coldstream. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

If the SNP seeks a new referendum and the UK government refuses, a standoff would ensue.

Even if this if were resolved and Scotland went on to vote for independence, the separation would not take place immediately.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume that there would be some kind of difficult negotiations,” Dr Sampson said. “At the start of those negotiations, the eventual destination would be uncertain.

“Scotland will also need to negotiate with the EU… and both those negotiations are potentially quite complicated, divisive and long-lasting.”

A vote for independence would mean the first major change in the borders of Western Europe since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

Asked whether the unionist movement would find it more difficult to interest voters in the border question if they lived further north, Mr Lamont said that most people across Scotland would be worried about the issue.

“People are regularly jumping on planes or getting on trains to go to not just faraway places, but also to other places in the UK,” he said.

“If that border between Scotland and the rest of the UK were to become a real thing and much more difficult to cross … I think most Scots would be concerned by that.”

Ms Coates said a hard border would be a shock to locals but could, at least in the short term, make Coldstream a tourist destination of sorts.

“You would have the curiosity factor for a while,” she said. “People would want to come with their passports just to see if it’s real.”

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