Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Why It Would Be No Surprise If Berwick Went Into Scotland

The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumbria (population over 26,000) lies on the English side of the border between England and Scotland. It has changed hands between the two countries 13 times since the 13th century and looks on the verge of changing hands once again. Ever since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 there has been talk of shifting the border and now it has reached the state that a motion is going through parliament to effect the change. The majority of the local population support the change. It will not be without challenges. Scotland has a different legal system to England (for example court cases can have a 'not proven' verdict in addition to a 'guilty' or 'not guilty' verdict) and on an increasing numbers of points of law there are differences. The two systems were never combined when England and Scotland were joined by the Act of Union in 1707 and since the creation of the Scottish Parliament the laws have diverged further. This means lawyers from England cannot practice in Scotland and vice versa, so all the solicitors in Berwick will have to go for retraining. The same applies to teachers. If you are trained in England you cannot teach in Scotland which despite the so-called National Curriculum introduced in 1992 has different subjects (for example Citizenship was introduced a lot earlier there than in England) and examinations. Scottish children do not sit SATS at 7 years old, they have qualifications called Highers rather than 'A' levels and Scottish students studying in Scotland do not have to pay fees in the way English have to pay in England. Despite their smaller population the Scots had five universities when England only had two and education is much more respected in Scotland. Anyway, the differences mean that for some people in Berwick it is going to be a question of moving away or getting new qualifications. Estate agents (there are 3 companies based in Berwick) are already complaining as they would apparently have to be retrained (and there was me thinking that all estate agents had to be amateurs!).

Why then is this desire to migrate to what is becoming increasingly a distinct country from England? Scotland covers 78,772 km² compared to 130,439 km² of England, making Scotland 60% of the size of England but with its population of only 5.1 million compared to 50.7 million in England, having a tenth of its population. Scotland has 72 MPs (though there are plans to cut this to 59) who sit in the UK Parliament in Westminster, London, compared to 529 for England, so in Scotland you get 1 MP in London for every 53,000 people compared to 1 per 70,000 people in England. In addition in Scotland you also vote for 129 MSPs who sit in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (England has no regional parliaments despite attempts to establish them), so you get more democratic representation in Scotland. In addition, Scotland, partly because of the influence of the SNP (Scottish National Party) a nationalist party which pursues rather Socialist policies, welfare provision is better in Scotland especially free care for the elderly and I imagine that has been a key issue to swing the population of Berwick towards Scotland. If you have children or are old or have elderly relatives then generally you are better off in Scotland than England. About 400,000 English people live in Scotland and about 700,000 Scottish people live in England (many of them in London). Even Scottish newspapers note that there is prejudice against English settlers in the country, though this is less in the big cities. Little attention is paid to Scots in England and certainly there is no resentment towards them as is reserved for the Irish. It will be interesting to see how the population of Berwick is received given that they live so close as it is anyway. Maybe it will be perceived as a victory for Scottish moves towards independence and certainly for the policy line that has been adopted on education and welfare since 1999. Are places like Longtown in Cumbria, Wooler, Belford and Otterburn in Northumbria opt to cross the border next? What would happen if Carlisle (Cumbria) opted to move? Could we see in a few decades time Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a border town between the two countries?

To some extent this whole issue casts doubt on all the references to patriotism that people claim so much. Maybe it is not that serious, given that it is about regions of one country. Parts of the Nord Rhein-Westfalen and of Rheinland-Pfalz provinces of Germany once belonged to Prussia (most of which is now part of Poland anyway) and Bavaria and most of Nieder Sachsen was British until 1866. However, what it does say is that patriotism matters less than having a social policy which serves the needs of the bulk of the population. I think that is a stronger driving factor than any references to flags emblazoned with the Cross of St. George (England) or the Cross of St. Andrew (Scotland), and the shift of Berwick demonstrates that. English politicians should wake up to the fact that people would rather shift country than put up with the ever deteriorating welfare and education situations in England.

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