Because of its use by Harold Wilson to reassure Britons that, after the 1967 devaluation “the pound in your pocket” had not lost value may not be the happiest phrase to use. But, in the midst of highly politicised (and often emotional) debate on our future, the non-political three in four people simply want to know how it will affect them. Nobody has a crystal ball or time machine but it is a reasonable question that deserves serious attempt at answer. Given that I know it well, I am best placed to launch into speculation about East Lothian and its possible future.
If my (many) unionist friends would bear with me, I will assume the people said ‘yes’ in a 2014 referendum. After two years of negotiations with Westminster and Brussels, Scotland rediscovered life as a sovereign nation, self-governing dominion of the Commonwealth and member of the EU with the Queen as Head of State on 30th November 2016.
Faslane remained temporarily under UK control a Treaty Port, with the Royal Navy committed to withdraw from there entirely within a decade. Over the same time, Scotland agreed to apply UK-style border checks at all its ports and airports so that the border with England could remain entirely open. Scottish banknotes continued to be printed and denominated in UK pounds and Scotland contracted with the Treasury and the Inland Revenue to run its taxation and benefits system until such a time as they had established their own. The new Scottish Exchequer disposed of some £60bn in revenues (including £12bn from oil and gas) and, because it was an oil-backed economy linked to a major world currency, Scotland received an AA credit rating from S&P and Moody’s.
The first effect was a drop in value of shares in Scottish companies and a difficulty in finding capital to invest north of the border. But, as many embassies became established in Edinburgh and media coverage of the new country raised its profile, property prices in SE Scotland boomed and summer 2017 festivals and events the length of Scotland sold out as visitor numbers broke records. As most came to Edinburgh, the spill-over into East Lothian created bumper years for the SSC’s new subsea extension and swamped the new ‘linear park’ project linking the varied tourist attractions between Musselburgh and Dunbar. Having geared up for its ten-year anniversary, the Fringe by the Sea’s new ten-day format turned into a sellout triumph.
With the higher profile came an influx of people—mostly from England—who, having visited for the first time, found the smaller cities, shorter commutes and closer country and recreation. Many moved to places like East Lothian where new serviced small office complexes attracted them to transfer their business to where they lived and keep closer contact with their families through the day.
As the new government departments became established in major cities, the siting of the Scottish Treasury in Edinburgh revitalised the financial services sector and, with a chastened and shrunken RBS Group embracing the cannier aspects of banking as always espoused by Scottish Widows and the like, Scotland began its long competition with Switzerland as a repository of secure banking for sensible people. This brought in capital which was used to invest in cleverer extraction of oil from fading North Sea wells and the deeper rougher waters of the Celtic Sea. Unlike Fife, Highland, Angus, Moray and Midlothian, we did not benefit directly from rebasing of the Scottish Defence Forces but many more young volunteers have come forward as deployment furth of Scotland is mostly on NATO exercises and as UN peacekeepers.
Although East Lothian did not participate directly in their building (done mostly at Methil), the construction of the huge Scottish & Southern wind farm 50 km East of the Forth brought much service and construction business to Arbroath and Dunbar revitalising both harbours. The power, being brought onshore at Torness, was in an ideal location for export to England as it was cheaper to generate at these windier latitudes. The average 1.5GW going south brought in over £1/2bn in revenues to Scotland. What jobs might come from the tidal generators to be laid across the Forth from Fidra is still unknown.
Although pressure to grow East Lothian was kept low, the booming renewables business brought over 200 skilled jobs to the East and South of the county while the dozen serviced offices in each town catalysed a mix of smaller architects, graphic design and advertising agencies to relocate from Edinburgh , resulting in some 600 new office jobs and around the same number in supporting services like printing, IT, cleaning, catering and admin support.
But the largest increase since 2017 has been in tourism. The implementation of the coastal tourism strategy’s ‘linear park’ made it easier to reach and enjoy the variety of recreation all along East Lothian’s coast. Watersports took off at Gullane (kite surfing) Thorntonloch (surfing) Dunbar and North Berwick (scuba diving) once changing and shower facilities were provided. Bird watching has boomed since the summer shuttle made it easy to hop from Musselburgh Lagoons to Aberlady to the SSC to Belhaven. The provision of multiple hire/drop-off points for bikes has encouraged people to explore further inland.
Within tourism, perhaps the most successful initiative has been the ‘Fresh’n’Local’ initiative. Started in North Berwick where three restaurants in the harbour area featured freshly landed seafood, this spread to other harbours (Dunbar & Port Seton) and to other produce, including locally produced meats, vegetables and fruits, available through branded restaurant outlets and distributed through a web-based system of matching menu with available fresh produce. This has complemented the existing golf business but has proved a big draw in itself, such that some 25% of tourists are estimated to be foodies. We estimate some 250 more people are now engaged in production (both onshore and off) and twice that number in the distribution and retail end within the county.
This, in turn, has had a positive effect on local high streets. Dunbar and Haddington have both taken on the livelier tone of North Berwick as more people stay there to work in the offices and, in summer and at weekends, more tourists come to visit and sample the food. As long as the county remains unspoiled and keeps producing top-notch produce, there is no reason to expect the relative affluence the combination has brought is not sustainable indefinitely.
It is difficult to say that these new developments in affluence and employment would not have happened had the old national picture remained post 2014. But attention focus on a new nation brought tourists, the establishment of government brought money and the spur of returning natives and new Scots from the south brought ideas that made it all much larger than it would have been—putting more pounds into everyone’s pocket.