GALASHIELS, Scotland (Reuters) - - Calum Kerr, a parliamentarian from the Scottish National Party (SNP), is having to work hard to get his message across.
As he defends a wafer-thin majority in Britain’s June 8 election, he wants to focus on issues directly affecting his farming constituency bordering England, with its struggling economy that may suffer further when Britain leaves the European Union.
But those issues are being drowned out by the often shrill debate about Scotland’s right to another vote on independence from Britain. Scots rejected secession by 10 points in a 2014 referendum and polls show most still do not support it.
“This election is not about independence at all,” said Kerr, who wants to get away from the topic as he campaigns for votes. “It’s about getting the voice of the Borders heard and it is all about Brexit, which is amplified in the rural context.”
Polls indicate British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party has gained traction in Scotland by saying this election is about secession. She opposes another independence referendum, arguing the time is not right after Britain voted to leave the European Union last year.
Scotland’s devolved parliament has approved a second referendum, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, also leader of the SNP, has championed it in recent months. She says Scots should be offered a new choice because Scotland voted to stay in the EU.
The early British election has interrupted that campaign, however, after May, who had repeatedly ruled out such a vote, changed her mind last month.
Sturgeon has been at odds with some nationalists who worry that, having pushed for a new independence vote so early, the SNP may lose seats next month and play into May’s hands.
While the SNP is expected to win the large majority of Scotland’s British parliamentary seats, even modest Conservative gains could bolster the party and allow it to argue that ambitions to break from Britain are misplaced.
With the 300-year-old economic and political union of England and Scotland in the balance, marginal seats like Kerr’s become all the more important.
Since his narrow election win in 2015, the 45-year-old former telecoms strategist has focused on getting new funding status for a region whose economy underperforms the UK average by 30 percent and the Scottish average by 25 percent.
“We have to get people past the constitutional noise and see that who they choose will be the one fighting for them at (Britain’s national parliament) Westminster,” Kerr told Reuters in an interview in Galashiels, a picturesque town in the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency.
Roxburgh beef and lamb farmer Rob Livesey, 56, whose farm set amid rolling, green hills depends on EU subsidies for about one quarter of annual revenues, said he was frustrated that key issues were being drowned out by talk of the constitution.
His main worry is to keep his farm competitive even as he loses support from the European Union post-Brexit, a divorce process that is expected to take two years.
“If you look at beef that comes into our supermarkets from Ireland, farmers there are part of the EU and are heavily supported,” Livesey told Reuters.
“So we either need to restrict the amount of imports that come in (to Britain) or we need to be able to give the support to our own producers to allow them to compete. But none of that is being said. It’s really concerning.”
Farmers across Britain share his worries. While many voted for Brexit, and saw a short-term boost to profits when sterling fell, they fret about losing financial support longer term and want the government to step in.
The SNP has been in power in Scotland’s devolved parliament for a decade, but it took until 2015 to win a landslide of almost all the Scottish seats in Britain’s national election.
It achieved that by campaigning on a specific manifesto pledge that the vote was not about independence, but about giving Scotland a strong voice in London.
The win was all the more remarkable as Scots had only just rejected the SNP-led campaign for independence in a fiercely fought referendum.
Scotland, with a population of just over five million that contributes around eight percent to Britain’s GDP, votes very differently from England, where the Conservatives have long been the party of government.
In Scotland, Conservatives spent years in the wilderness until Scottish leader Ruth Davidson focused on defending Britain against secession and the Labour Party collapsed.
The Conservatives now appear to be placing their Scottish bets on this one issue and have posted leaflets saying “Scotland doesn’t need or want another independence referendum” across the country. The pamphlet mentions other themes, such as the economy, just twice in passing.
The Conservatives and SNP both say the other is obsessed with the constitution.
But polls show the Conservatives taking around seven of the SNP’s 54 seats in Britain’s 650-seat national parliament in London, in what would be its best performance in decades. It won just one last time around.
Support for independence has stayed at around 45 percent since 2014; although Scots are disgruntled by Brexit, it has not moved the dial on secession as far as Sturgeon and her party might have expected.
For some, the Conservatives’ message provides clarity amid the complexities that Brexit entails, and hones in on the issue many Scots care about most.
“I will vote for the least likely thing to produce Scottish independence. For Scotland to come adrift would be a disaster,” said one resident in Galashiels town centre.
She did not give her full name, like several other people interviewed by Reuters in the Borders region who expressed the same view.
Her reticence was reminiscent of the 2014 referendum buildup, during which many Scots refused to take sides publicly for fear of causing ructions with friends or family.
“But it’s a difficult one, because we don’t want absolute Tory (Conservative) power either.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White