Between 2013 and 2015, the ESRC funded a seminar series examining the changing relationship between Scotland and the North East of England. While the series highlighted the many challenges facing the North East’s economic fortunes in the context of an even more powerful neighbour north of the border, it also explored the opportunities provided by the Scottish independence campaign – and the aftermath of the 2014 referendum – to forge new, creative, cross-border collaborations between two ‘close friends’ united by common bonds and shared traditions.
Here Professor Keith Shaw of Northumbria University, who led the seminar series, writes about the effect on the relationship between Scotland and the North East of England and forthcoming potential outcomes following Brexit.
One of the collaborative opportunities identified – and subsequently taken up – in the ESRC seminar series ‘Close Friends’? Assessing the impact of greater Scottish autonomy on the North of England was for the five local authorities adjacent to the Scotland border to promote greater cross-border economic collaboration and ensure that a stronger voice for the borderlands area is developed.
In addition, the 2015 ‘Devo Deal’ that announced the creation of a North East Combined Authority, also includes a request for the wider North East to be able to explore opportunities for strengthening economic cooperation with Scotland.
… Then came the early morning of 25 June 2016 and the EU referendum result! Clearly for UK politics, and arguably, for the nature of the UK itself, the decision to leave is a case of ‘all changed, changed utterly’.
One fundamental issue relates to the difference in referendum outcomes north and south of the border, with the Scots voting by 62 per cent to 38 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU, while the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
There was also a clear cross-border divergence in outlook, as the North East had the second highest leave vote of any English region – 58 per cent.
Early reactions from north of the border were of genuine shock and anger. The First Minister described the overall outcome of the referendum as a ‘democratic outrage’ as the Scottish nation had not voted for Brexit.
Such an outcome, it was argued, would cause untold damage to Scotland’s economy, break the strong ties between Scotland and its European neighbours and seriously undermine Scotland’s global reputation as a welcoming and internationalist country.
While several options that would allow the Scots to remain in the EU have been mooted, including the Holyrood Parliament vetoing the UK’s exit from the EU under the articles of the 1998 Scotland Act, and the Scots being able to achieve some form of associate EU membership status while the rest of the UK leaves, the most likely route to maintaining Scotland’s EU membership is through achieving a Yes vote in a second Scottish independence referendum.
For the SNP, the outcome of the EU referendum can justifiably be regarded as the “material change of circumstance” that they argued after 2014 would justify calling a second referendum on independence.
The SNP – and Nicola Sturgeon – could then harness the voice of the Scottish people in putting pressure on a new Theresa May-led UK government on this issue. It is also noticeable that while the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson is opposed to another referendum north of the border, she did recently concede that the Westminster Parliament should not stand in the way of a referendum being held if that is the wish of the Scottish Government. Three polls in the last month also confirm that that there is now a majority in Scotland in favour of independence; one poll had 53 per cent voting for independence with 47 per cent against.
Clearly, an outcome which produces an international border between two countries (one in the EU and one outside) creates considerable uncertainties for the evolving relationship between Scotland and the North East of England.
One particular concern is that a number of the collaborative opportunities across the borderlands were in areas such as rural development, farming, tourism and renewable energies, in which continuing EU investment and support are vital.
Nor is the prospect of a ‘hard’ Anglo-Scottish border with passport checks and currency converters likely to appeal to those crossing the border on a daily basis for work, shopping or family visits; while the likelihood of different tax or even currency regimes will make it much harder for cross-border economic business linkages and activities.
The prospect of an emboldened and empowered North East – ready to talk to Scotland on a more equal basis – has also receded after the referendum result, with North East council leaders concerned that without EU funding several of the key features of the devolution deals would be hard to implement.
In addition, the political demise of George Osborne, the creator and leading advocate of both devolution deals and the Northern Powerhouse, has intensified concerns that the devolution push in England may be, at best, stalled and at worst derailed.
The prospect of an independent Scotland inside the EU – in contrast to a northerly English region outside the EU – would be a major blow to those on both sides of the border who had hoped that common EU membership would be one of the platforms on which a new cross-border relationship could be developed.
After the Leave vote, it is more likely that the Anglo-Scottish border will operate more as a ‘barrier’ than a ‘bridge’, intensifying economic competition and making collaboration across the ‘borderlands’ very hard to achieve.
Indeed, it could be the end of a beautiful friendship.