Town needs a new identity

I'm sure most of us are glad the EU referendum is behind us and are wondering what will happen next.

Friday, 1st July 2016, 08:00 am
Updated Thursday, 30th June 2016, 12:41 pm

The people of Berwick, I believe, should be particularly concerned, but the pros and cons of the two cases are not of concern in this piece.

However, following the success of the Brexit campaign, a Facebook friend from Berwick, who has lived in Australia for the last 20 years, posted the following, hypothetical question.

“When the UK leaves the EU and if Scotland leaves the UK to remain in the EU, where does Berwick want to be... in England or Scotland?”

Let us leave aside any arguments about the rights and wrongs and hows of Scotland retaining its EU membership outside the UK. That is immaterial.

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Let us also assume that the state of the EU is the same as it was on Wednesday last week and that Scotland enjoys the same deals as the UK formerly did (remember folks, this is completely hypothetical).

I am a Northumbrian and therefore have always looked to England as being a place of “natural affiliation”. I have always opposed any such similar talk of Berwick reverting to its former Scottish identity at the time of the Scottish referendum and at other times.

However, in the far-fetched circumstances posited in the question (although who could say with any certainty what will happen anyway?) for the first time in my life, I would agree to Berwick reverting to its former nationality. Armed only with a knowledge of Berwick’s history and an O-level in geography, here are my reasons for this statement.

If you leave aside any foolish arguments about pride in national identity, there are many good economic reasons for doing this (in any circumstances) as Edinburgh is a much closer seat of power and therefore would be more likely to look after us, especially as it would be a lost jewel in its crown.

One of the major problems I have always thought, apart from its remote location, is that Berwick is at the end of a geographic cul-de-sac at the top of England. Whether this matters in reality or is just a perception, I’m not sure, but other cul-de-sac towns in England such as Hull and Barrow-in-Furness experience this effect.

By this I mean, most organisations and companies are based on geographic areas so whether it is Northumberland or the North East in general, Berwick is seen as being like a shop at the end of a blank alley: why would you go there on the off-chance when you may just have to return empty handed.

And being in England, Berwick won’t be on the Scottish radar. If Berwick was in Scotland, it would be part of a more “circular” route connected to Lothian and the Borders. Two thirds of its hinterland is in Scotland.

However, if Berwick was in an EU-integrated Scotland, it would be likely to attract a lot of grants from Europe (and even if Scotland remains in a non-EU UK, would surely benefit from the Barnett formula (assuming that remained in place).

So first, is Berwick English or Scottish? If you tot up the years that Berwick has been Scottish, even assuming it was in existence at the time of the Battle of Carham in 1018 (unlikely), Berwick has only been in Scotland for about 300 years. Having said that, it was Scottish for the great majority of its formative years in the 12th and 13th centuries.

An interesting historic perspective is that it prospered because it was the closest port to Europe.

Its decline began when, after 1333, it was essentially English. The main export industries of wool and grain, that had been produced in the border abbeys, saw the production and trade move north towards North Berwick and Leith as they were the next closest ports, which is why Edinburgh prospered and became the capital. Conversely, Berwick’s economy dropped considerably.

So, could some of that former glory be reproduced? Can we, if not reverse history, replicate it? Not to the same scale I’m sure, but it would be an interesting avenue to explore. If Berwick returned to Scotland, thus regaining its “closest Scottish port to Europe” status, it might see a resurgence of industry in Berwick and the Borders as a whole. International companies that are now in the north of England might see the Borders as a “best of both worlds” scenario being next door to England but enjoying free trade with Europe.

Any settlement requires a raison d’être to exist. Many villages and towns that once prospered have disappeared throughout history when the purpose for their existence was no longer there. Who would believe that there were once about 2,000 people in Ford when the mining industry existed there?

We can all wish for some halcyon past but it isn’t going to return. Not as it had been because the rest of the world has moved on. Berwick desperately needs to find a new identity, a new justification for being here. To seriously reinvent itself. The only way for a town or country to improve its economy is to attract investment from outside the system. Yes we have tourism but that is seasonal and low paid. We all know that should be the icing on the cake.

Sadly, at present, because of globalisation and Berwick’s location, there is not much cake left on the table.

Of course, there would be many issues, but the basic idea might worth serious consideration if such a scenario in Scotland arose.

Jim Herbert

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