The Naes try to swing it

In Scotland: Borders fret on devolution
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The Independent Online
When the Scottish referendum results start flashing up on the electronic scoreboard at Edinburgh's International Conference Centre in the early hours of 12 September, home rule campaigners will be keeping an anxious look-out for the vote in the Borders.

The robustly independent-minded folk who inhabit the historic market towns and rolling countryside drained by the River Tweed are the most devo-sceptic of all Scots. As one so-called "Souter o' Selkirk" put it to The Independent, an Edinburgh parliament would be just another 129 politicians "bleth-ering a lot o' bloody hash".

The Borderer's first loyalty is to his or her burgh - witness the passions of Borders rugby and the ancient custom of Common Ridings, a ceremonial inspection of the burgh boundaries. After that, loyalty is to the region itself, often with closer ties to neighbours in Northumberland than in the central belt. As to business, right back to the cattle-thieving "reivers" it was always a cross-border affair.

In the 1979 referendum the Borders had the highest "No" vote in Scotland - 59.7 per cent (30,780). In Scotland as a whole, 51.6 per cent voted "Yes", though the simple majority was insufficient to meet the required threshold.

The Borderers were afraid a parliament would be dominated by the monolithic municipal socialists of the central belt. Much is being made by ministers and pro-devolution parties of the theory that the switch to proportional representation should prevent one-party rule. But ask the people of Selkirk or Hawick if they are reassured and they look at you quizzically and say - "Aye, I'm not sure about that." It is the unconvinced equivalent of "I hear what you say".

Opinion polls show the Borders likely to vote "Yes" by a modest majority, but John Smaile, editor of the Southern Reporter, thinks interest is low and the outcome still "too close to call". The threatened ban on fox hunting has generated far more letters to his paper than devolution.

The two parliamentary constituencies of the Scottish Borders Council return Liberal Democrat MPs, though more out of an anti-Establishment tradition than an abiding belief in Paddy Ashdown's policies. And until recently nearly all Borders councillors sat as Independents.

Michael Moore, who has succeeded David (now Lord) Steel as MP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, plans a campaign of general election-style intensity in the fortnight before the poll to try and mobilise the party's supporters but he admits there is "politics fatigue" even among local activists.

Mr Moore too would not have supported devolution in 1979 because of the risk of domination by the central belt. Another negative factor that weighed heavily at the time was the intervention on the "No" side of the most influential Border laird, the former Conservative Prime Minister Lord Home.

Even so, on the street in Selkirk opinion seemed to confirm Mr Moore's view that there is still all to play for. Among those who expressed support it was usually an "on balance" or "I think its going to happen this time" sort of thing rather than gushing enthusiasm.

Opponents were more forthright. John Nairn, whose butcher's shop boasts "Award Winning Haggis", said the parliament would be expensive and powerless. "The present arrangement has worked for 300 or 400 years. Why change it?"

Gordon Stirrat, sales manager at McNabs saddlery, blamed a "vociferous minority" for leading Scotland into something that the majority, and particularly business, did not want. "I wear the kilt, I support the Scottish rugby team, and I'm as nationalistic as anybody but we don't need an expensive talking shop."