The shopkeepers of Hawick are in the grip of feverish preparations. Up and down the High Street, they are festooning their windows with blue and gold bunting. But though the town is situated in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Scotland’s most marginal Westminster constituency, and the Conservatives and the SNP are the two parties fighting for supremacy, the decorations are not proof of political engagement.
Rather, all minds are on Hawick’s annual three-day festival, the Common Riding, which starts on 8 June; the ubiquitous blue and gold are the event’s traditional colours. So all-pervading is the festival, held to commemorate the capture of an English flag at Hornshole in 1514, some people have applied for postal votes to save them visiting a polling station on election day.
Not that the Common Riding is universally embraced. For some, it’s a symbol of insularity; the obsession of an establishment clique. “Have you ever been the Cornet’s Lass [one of the chief ceremonial roles]?” I ask a young woman who has been explaining arcane rituals such as “the snuffin”. “No,” she says. “ Your face has to fit. Mine doesnae.”
Hawick’s mantra is: “It’s aye been.” You see it on posters; hear it in bars. But nowadays, it is tinged with irony. Over the past 30 years, the town’s fortunes have declined. The knitwear industry, once its lifeblood, has shrunk, though the remaining mills still produce some of the world’s finest cashmere and merino garments. The Borders Railway which brings tourists to Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank, stops 23 miles short of Hawick, leaving it cut off from Edinburgh. And, despite its striking statues, the High Street is jaded and lacklustre.
Politically too, the landscape has been transformed. Once a Liberal Democrat stronghold, the sitting MP, Michael Moore, was beaten into third place in 2015. Back then, the Conservatives were so sure their candidate, John Lamont, would win, they shifted their focus to David Mundell’s Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency. Mundell was saved, but the SNP’s Calum Kerr took Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk by a majority of just 328.
This time round, the pair are battling it out again, but all the momentum is with the Conservatives, who require a swing of just 0.3 per cent and expect the party’s resurgence to deliver it. Lamont – the son of a Duns farmer who has stood three times before – quit as MSP of the equivalent Holyrood constituency when the general election was announced, prompting a by-election. He is confident it will be fourth time lucky.
One vote he is guaranteed is Betty Hogg’s. Taking tea in Cathy’s Café – an unpretentious purveyor of bacon butties – she says Lamont is a “good man”, always willing to help people out. “My father voted Tory – I think it is in the genes,” says Hogg. “I’m not a Nicola Sturgeon fan. I’m not for independence.”
In Hawick, however, Brexit is arguably a bigger issue than the prospect of a second indyref. At the Hawico Scotland factory shop, the knitting machines, with their twirling bobbins and carriers whirring back and forth, prove the cashmere company has moved with the times. Behind the machines, a dozen women form a manual production line. One stretches bright jumpers over a pair of illuminated cones to check for faults which she marks with thread. Then, she passes the jumpers on to be mended with needles and turning hooks. Close at hand sit boxes of buttons in exotic shades such as Clover, Furnace and African Lily.
Hawico exports into the main European markets as well as Asia and the US, and has its own retail outlets in Germany, Switzerland and Japan, but Brexit has cast a cloud of uncertainty over its future.
“The weak pound is beneficial to our UK stores, but what is going to happen with regard to import duties?” asks retail director Liz Young. “If the European countries have a knee-jerk reaction to what they are importing from Britain, that is a big concern.”
There are others, however, who believe Brexit will be liberating. One mill worker tells me her boss is convinced it will open up new markets. Hogg, who spent most of her working life in the textile industry, voted Leave for the same reason. “Brexit is a great thing – it takes us away from Brussels and all the red tape,” she says.
Gathered outside Subway, the Johnstone family had another motive for voting Leave: immigration. “We’ve all agreed on a one-off Tory protest vote because we want to put a stop to freedom of movement,” says John-George, a Labour supporter, unionist and Rangers fan, who is heading off to Ibrox for his team’s clash with Aberdeen. He thinks foreigners are “clogging up” the hospitals, and wants England and Scotland to stay together. “Why is it so important to remain part of the UK?” I ask. “Because we arra people,” he responds.
His daughter Karissa, 22, who works in the NHS, voted Yes in 2014, but forsook the SNP after the EU referendum, while her cousin Lee, 26 – father of 10-week-old Aria – says he wants tougher sentences for the town’s paedophiles and drug-users.
Surprisingly – given Labour polled just 2,700 votes in 2015 – a couple of residents say they plan to keep supporting the party. “I know it’s probably a wasted vote, but if you don’t vote for them, they will never do any better,” says Rachel Connelly, 25, who wants to be a fashion designer. “I am not totally against independence, I just wish she [Sturgeon] would ease off a bit and wait.”
With the Tories acting as if victory is theirs, the atmosphere in Hawick’s SNP hub is subdued. Veteran members Sheila Rae and Anne Bain hold the line: they praise Kerr for his commitment and insist they detect no diminution in the desire for independence, but their body language suggests they feel they’re being outmanoeuvred and outgunned. They complain about the resources the Conservatives are pouring into their campaign and tell me of an SNP canvasser hounded off a farmer’s land. “A tiny thing she was, but fearless,” says Rae.
Later, driving back up the A7 towards Edinburgh, I pass two giant Calum Kerr banners in the front garden of a house in Selkirk. Dwarfing the John Lamont banner a few doors up, they remind me of the SNP’s past swagger, so I swing off the road and ring the bell.
Doreen Mitchell invites me in. She tells me her husband John – an SNP councillor for Scottish Borders Council for 29 years – lost his Galashiels seat to a Tory earlier in the month.
Doreen continues to support Kerr and to believe Scotland would be better off standing on its own two feet. “John was disappointed with the result, but he is 67 now and ready to retire,” she says. “As for me, I’ve got my gardener back.”
The candidates standing for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk are Liberal Democrat: Caroline Burgess; Labour: Ian Davidson; SNP: Calum Kerr; Conservatives: John Lamont