Local democracy reporter speaks to John Lamont, Scottish Conservative candidate for the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency.
JA: What are the big issues you’ve heard on the doorstep so far?
JL: The feeling on the doorstep is that people want to get Brexit sorted, there’s a frustration that Parliament has not been able to back a Brexit deal, we’re still negotiating our departure.
There’s huge anxiety about Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second referendum to break up Britain, that’s in many ways is raised more often than anything else.
Nicola Sturgeon has clearly put that at the heart of her campaign, she had that big rally up in Glasgow where she said that independence was going to be at the heart of this general election campaign for the SNP so I think that’s focused people’s minds and certainly round here, there’s no appetite for that.
JA: With the SNP campaigning on a second referendum, if they win a majority of seats in Scotland again, do you think it would be legitimate for them to call a second referendum?
JL: Last time they got around 40% of the vote, and I don’t think that’s a mandate for another referendum, particularly in the context of they said in 2014 that it’s going to be a once in a generation event, the idea that we’re going to reopen that very divisive debate again so soon causes people quite a lot of anger and worry.
JA: You mentioned the percentage of votes the SNP won last time, is there a percentage where you’d say there is a mandate for a second referendum?
JL: My own personal view is that we need to maintain and stick to the promise they made and I think that the Prime Minister is right, he will refuse any application by the First Minister for another divisive vote.
We need to move on, the country needs to be brought together again, and I don’t think you solve the uncertainty over Brexit by having another layer of uncertainty over Scotland’s future within the United kingdom.
JA: Are you a fan of Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement?
JL: It’s not perfect, it’s not about being a fan of something, I think it’s a deal which delivers Brexit, it delivers it in an orderly way, and it ensures we can move on to the next stage of this process.
This whole Brexit debate, particularly this stage of the debate, is all about compromise and this deal is, I think, an acceptable compromise.
It both delivers on the referendum result, in an orderly way, and ensures we can move on to the next stage.
JA: As a unionist, are you happy with there being checks on goods before going on to Northern Ireland, basically creating a border in the Irish Sea?
JL: Clearly the prospect of that happening is only going to arise if the Stormont Assembly wants that to happen, so it’s very important that they get that body up and running so that there’s a degree of local accountability and local decision making.
Clearly the DUP are not happy about that but as I said, it’s about ensuring that we, as a nation, which includes Northern Ireland, leave the EU in an orderly way and this deal ensures that all parts of the UK do leave, and the long term relationship with the EU, which obviously has implications for Northern Ireland given the physical border it has with the EU, will be determined by what’s included in the free trade agreement, which we will then go on to negotiate.
JA: The SNP are saying that Scotland should be independent and in the EU, you’re saying that Scotland should be part of the UK but outside of the EU, which would your constituents prefer?
JL: The biggest anxiety on the doorstep is Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second referendum, we’ll see when the votes are counted in the early hours of the 13th what the views of the constituents are.
Clearly there a range of policies being put forward, I’m very clear that we need to sort Brexit and also we need to ensure that Scotland remains part of a strong United Kingdom.
The SNP want to take Scotland back in the EU, take Scotland back out of the United Kingdom and that is a stark choice.
Many people who have long affiliations and indeed long memberships of other parties, such as Labour or the Lib Dems, do not want to see an independent Scotland have started, and will hopefully continue to, support me in December because they want to stop the SNP in what is certainly a two-horse race.
JA: It would be fair to say that the last ten years of Conservative rule have been defined by austerity – if there was to be another ten years, what would you like that to be defined by?
JL: The last ten years have been difficult, but you have to remember that when we came to power as part of the Conservative Coalition in 2010, public finances were in a dreadful state, there was huge debt and a large amount of borrowing.
It was important that we restabilised and took control of the public finances so that we can now make spending commitments in the current election.
I want the United Kingdom and Scotland to be a place of opportunity, where you’re able to achieve whatever you want, regardless of your background.
For me, that is the Conservative Party’s fundamental philosophy, but at the same time ensuring there is a safety net for those people who are vulnerable in society, whether that’s through the benefits system or through the NHS, or the other arms of the state.
We need to move the country on and bring the country together over the next few years, after the divisive referendums, whether that be on Scottish independence or on the EU question.
Any government, as well as their policy objectives, needs to bring the country together.
JA: You say you like the idea of equal opportunity, but a lot of these cuts have taken chunks out of education and health. If you were a child born into a family that relies on these institutions, are you not at a disadvantage?
JL: We’re very lucky here to have the NHS and school here, but clearly they are devolved, so the issues around funding you’ve referred to would be a matter for the Scottish Government.
We need to ensure that rural health boards like the one here in the Borders is properly funded, and you’ve covered in previous stories issues around the funding allocation that rural health boards such as NHS Borders get, and there’s big questions around whether they’re getting their fair share compared to health boards in the central belt.
The funding allocation question for NHS Borders and schools in the Borders is a question for the Scottish Government.
We need to make sure that the opportunities people aspire to are achievable because of being able to make use of good schools and hospitals.
JA: The same cuts happen south of the border though. The money here is just passed on by the Scottish Government…
JL: The funding allocation for the Scottish Government has gone up, the Scottish Parliament’s research department has confirmed that, the Scottish Government has also raised income tax, so they do have more money to spend, it’s how that money is directed and they choose to spend it.
There’s also been a huge follow through of Barnett [formula] consequentials so funding that has been allocated south of the Border has resulted in a huge amount of money coming to Scotland.
I’ve asked for some of that money to be invested in, for example, NHS Borders as a rural health board.
A lot of those decisions are decisions that the Scottish Government make, and there are extra resources available to the Scottish Government which it did not have ten years ago.
Rural areas like the Borders need to get their fair share and areas like the central belt should not be taking resources away from areas which are more rural.
JA: Scottish Borders Council is using council taxpayer money to pay for community action police teams. Would you like to see local authorities spending money in that way, making up for a lack of money coming from the government?
JL: That’s a decision for local authorities, in how they spend their budget, most of their funding comes from the Scottish Government and they’re faced with a very demanding financial settlement from the Scottish Government and that has resulted in the council having to make quite tough decisions about how they spend money but one of the things they have decided to invest in are these community safety teams and that in many ways is a recognition of what local residents say.
They want to see a visible police presence and they want to feel safe in their own communities, and funding those sorts of teams is one way to address that concern.
It’s true to say that since the creation of Police Scotland, once again one of the frustrations has been that rural areas, such as the Borders, have lost out to the central belt.
I did a shift with the police in Hawick recently and one of the things I was struck by was that when I first visited that station in 2007 it was a real hive of activity, all the offices were filled, and the floors busy.
And now, large parts of it are not in use, it’s not the facility that it used to be and I think in many ways that’s symbolic of the way the police have been reallocated away from rural areas into the bigger urban centres of Scotland and that’s unfortunate.
We need to do more to ensure that rural areas are not left behind.
JA: We’re on Hawick High Street now, a recent town centre survey from Scottish Borders Council showed that footfall in Hawick has more than halved over the last ten years, what would you like to see happen to bring the high street back?
JL: My office is based here, and I think from a physical perspective it is a very attractive high street, some of the buildings here are very nice, and it’s sad to see so many empty shops and in many ways Hawick is not unique.
Small town high streets are struggling and what I always say to people when they raise concerns about their high streets is to recognise than when you’re spending money, whether it’s a weekly shop or buying gifts, if you want to see a vibrant high street you need to spend your money locally, because the money you spend supports the local workforce and local shops.
These days people go online and get their shopping delivered by van or they do their other shopping online as well, or they go to out of town shopping centres in Edinburgh, that is taking away investment from our high streets.
The only way to make a high street vibrant is that when you see a new local business opening you try to support as best you can.
JA: Will the extension of the railway to Carlisle help?
JL: I think potentially it would. Connectivity is a big issue, whether it’s physical connection, like the railway, or through broadband and technological connectivity.
Bringing the railway on through to Carlisle through Hawick and Newcastleton for me is very important, that’s why I pushed so hard for the Borderland Growth Deal to include funding for the next stage of the study.
Arguably one of the big things about the railway, particularly for Newcastleton, is that it addresses one of my big concerns, which is rural isolation.
There are young people, who are not able to take advantage of the same opportunities because they can’t access sports facilities or college courses or other resources that people living in urban environments might be able to do.
We cannot restrict young people’s opportunities because they’re unable to get a bus or a train or a car and bringing the railway down to Carlisle would go a long way to address that.
JA: What first attracted you to conservatism?
JL: I’ve always had an interest in politics from a very young age, my bigger motive for being involved in politics is not so much the party labels, it’s more to do with my desire to make my community, my country and ultimately the world a better place for the next generation to come.
For me I felt that in terms of my belief in opportunity and enterprise that the Consevative Party, for me, represented the values that I felt were important.
My strong view is that it doesn’t matter what background your parents are from, or what school you went to, you should be able to achieve whatever you want in life.
My parents weren’t particularly political, I went to a normal comprehensive school, and yet I’ve become and MP.
In time my support for the Conservative and Unionist Party has evolved, and in 2014 we had the independence referendum, and that for me changed my politics again in the sense that I firmly believe that we need to move on from that debate and do everything we can to ensure Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.
JA: You mentioned equal opportunity, in the UK a disportionately high number of politicians, journalists and lawyers went to private schools, and we’re on our twentieth Prime Minister to have went to Eton. Does someone from the poorest section of our society really have the same opportunities as someone from the richest?
JL: Well Tony Blair went to Fettes College, one of the most expensive fee paying schools in the UK.
Undoubtedly there is an issue that Parliament is unrepresentative, but it’s certainly better than it was, you only have to look round the cabinet table to see the diversity that contains, and also across Parliament there is much greater diversity on gender balance and ethnic background.
We need to do more, but equally I wouldn’t stop people standing because they went to a particular school, we should encourage anybody who wants to make a difference to their community and their country to step forward, regardless of their background.