While the Scottish independence referendum debate has revived democracy north of the border, it has also led to increased stirrings in the north of England. One recent proposal has even launched a petition to move the border south to allowing part of the north-east to join Scotland. This is hardly surprising. Newcastle is only around 120 miles from Edinburgh. London is more than twice that distance. Many in the north understandably feel remote from the centres of power. They look enviously at the benefits that devolution has brought Scots and worry that the north would be worse off beneath an independent Scotland.
There is some degree of historical precedent for the idea of moving the border. At one point, the south of Scotland and north of England were a kingdom on their own – the kingdom of Northumbria, which at its peak stretched up to the River Forth near Edinburgh. Centuries earlier, Hadrian’s wall was famously built by the Roman emperor in order to keep the Scots out. Some 60 miles south of the current border, its remains can be seen across the north of England, from Carlisle in the west, to Wallsend in post-industrial Newcastle in the east. It remains a major tourist draw to this day. It is precisely this famous border that the recent petition seeks to reinstate. Hadrian’s wall would then become a mechanism for pulling Scots in, rather than keeping them out. Whether it would be redubbed Alex’s wall were the petition successful is another question.
With the exception of island states, borders are largely arbitrary constructs. Sometimes they can move quickly, as the experience at the end of the Cold War in central and eastern Europe demonstrated. More normally, they are the result of centuries of population movements, conquest and conflict, and political agreement and negotiation. Fortunately, there has been little or no physical conquest and conflict on the border between Scotland and England for many decades.
To use Hadrian’s wall and the River Tyne as the suggested border underlines the potential arbitrariness of this idea, though. What about Gateshead and Sunderland to the south? How would people in County Durham feel if they look north to a Newcastle joining Scotland? And what about the famously independent people of Yorkshire and even, further afield, the “people’s republic” of Liverpool?
Beyond the occasional headline-grabbing petition, there is no real political desire or demand on either side of the Scottish border for it to be moved. Scotland has no interest in territorial growth and expansion. This would mean adding a sizeable population and additional public policy demands. Neither does Westminster have any desire for it. To lose Scotland would be viewed as disastrous by the London-elite. To lose part of England as well would be unthinkable.
To the extent that the border has been an issue in the referendum, it has been about how it extends into the North Sea. This would be absolutely vital in negotiations were the Yes campaign successful, since the sea border would define the location of Scotland’s oil and major source of wealth. Drawing it in a different place may have considerable economic consequences to Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The worry that the border-moving petition taps into is that the north would be squeezed by a Scotland which will have increasing tax powers and the will to use them. Devolution in 1999 was already asymmetric because only one side of the border was involved. And Scottish tax powers will be further extended whatever the outcome of the referendum. The Scotland Act 2012, already on the statute book, has implications for Scottish taxation when it is implemented next April.
If the Yes campaign wins, the plan to cut corporation tax rates set out in the Scottish government’s white paper on independence have the potential to attract businesses and jobs to Scotland, bypassing the north of England. Plans to cut air passenger duty by 50% could also impact badly on Newcastle and other northern airports.
The north-east of England is also squeezed on the other side by a remote ruling class in Westminster, which has pledged to implement further large-scale cuts on local authorities after the 2015 general election. Evidence indicates that the north of England has suffered disproportionally under the post-2010 cuts regime – and there is more of this to come. Of course the electoral geography matters too in perceptions of fairness, as it also does in Scotland. The north is Labour-voting, the south Conservative-dominated.
The upside of the Scottish border
There are opportunities here for the north, however. Although the idea of a North-East Regional Assembly was roundly defeated in 2004, and most people in England feel that regional government just means more politicians, Scotland’s referendum has gradually put discussions about regional devolution back on the agenda in England. A report in 2013, “Borderlands”, pointed to areas where northern councils may co-operate with their Scottish counterparts on areas of mutual interest, providing a counterweight to Westminster.
More recently, a relatively weak form of administrative devolution has been created with the establishment of a North East Combined Authority to help pool resources between councils from Durham to Northumberland. The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is promoting a plan to devolve power to English City regions. Even Nigel Farage has got in on the act, calling for a federal settlement for the United Kingdom.
We have heard some of this before. There are regular proposals to give relatively weak powers to major cities, for example. What is required in the north of England, and in every other region of England, is some form of properly thought-through regional devolution with real powers to balance that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Without this, claims of alienation by Westminster will grow ever stronger while people will look enviously over the border at what the other three nations have. So if Scotland does vote Yes on Thursday, I can’t see any prospect of parts of north England looking to join. But like it or not, England is changing as a result of Scottish debates even if the border remains in the same place.