Brexit negotiations after the Vote Leave coup

Now we have sight of Boris Johnson’s letter to Donald Tusk, we have a little clearer idea about where things are heading subsequent to the Vote Leave takeover of the government after Johnson’s election as Tory leader. While the press comment has – rightly – focused on the attention given in the letter to the backstop and the issue of Northern/Ireland, the key paragraph is surely the one on p. 2 which talks about the backstop being ‘inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU’ and, specifically, this bit:

Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

There is an easy point to score here in that not one aspect of our democracy ever put Vote Leave into Downing Street – check, for instance, the 2017 General Election which delivered a hung parliament and May’s Euro elections results in the UK. Brexit remains, as it always did, a battle for control of the Tory Party in which all of us have been caught up.

It’s also very easy to criticise the tone of the letter – in something purporting to re-open negotiations, in superficial pursuit of an expressed desire that the EU might compromise, it is clear that it very much closes them down by hardening the red lines which were already the logical conclusion to May’s botched negotiation. It has, entirely predictably, already received short shrift from the EU and presumably, this was its purpose such that the EU can be portrayed as the ‘inflexible’ enemy unwilling to compromise to secure a deal. This is evidently not a serious attempt at a re-negotiation. If further evidence was required, it’s surely there in the paragraph towards the bottom of p. 2 of the letter withdrawing from the commitment set out in the agreed Joint Report to ‘full alignment’ with the single market and customs union. Negotiation cannot sensibly proceed when one side is so publicly thumbing its nose at agreed commitments previously entered into.

Even so, we should note very carefully the threat implicit in the paragraph quite above – that, unless the EU gives us the exit deal we want, the UK will move to a de-regulatory ‘paradise’, undercutting the EU on its environmental, product and labour standards and becoming a sort of Singapore in Europe, sitting on Europe’s offshore and acting as a haven for the sorts of dodgy interests that have given us Brexit in the first place. If that is the ‘UK’s final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship’ (whatever that tortuous expression actually means in practice) – well, I can’t recall being asked to vote on that; and neither, of course, is it at all sustainable to be seeking perpetually to drive down standards, including on labour, in a race to the bottom. (Of course and not only labour – it makes absolutely no sense to have divergent standards on the environment when global action is required to save the planet: but then, climate change denial is one of the reasons we have Brexit – and it won’t stop there until the rest of the international institutions trying to address themselves to climate change have also been undermined). In this respect, proposals for no state pension until 75 (‘Don’t retire, expire!’) is only the start.

If indeed it it not a serious attempt at re-negotiation, and that the real target of the letter is not Brussels but the domestic audience, then it does, perhaps, further signal a general election prior to 31 October.

We should also therefore note the language in the letter around ‘anti-democratic’ which is not just Dominic Cummings’s word du jour to boil the debate around the EU into a soundbite – it also symbolises the verbal oppression to which those who would be likely opponents of a UK-as-Singapore policy would be subject. We have seen this sort of language before and very recently (‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the people’, ‘collaborators’) but it casts here a very wide range of likely opponents of government policy as opponents of democracy. Environmental organisations and activists, food welfare and safety NGOs, and trade unions alike – all would oppose the driving down of standards in their respective fields and all, it therefore seems, are likely to be seen in the process as undermining a project which the unelected (oh the irony!) Cummings (a figure held earlier this year, remember, to have been in contempt of Parliament) now chooses to describe as ‘central to our future democracy’. Trade unions have famously before been seen as ‘the enemy within’, and both unions and environmental organisations are no strangers to infiltration by state agents, but the febrile political atmosphere in which we find ourselves as a result of the 2016 referendum and ten years of austerity politics, amidst the continuing trashing of the UK’s domestic institutions, to which we can now add the fifth estate to the fourth, and indeed the first, casts an entirely new light on the phrase.

It’s beginning indeed to look a lot like fascism.

 

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Book Review: Spring

Spring‘, the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels depicting aspects of life in contemporary Britain, is as literarily clever and determined to challenge as either of its two predecessors. There’s a real sense at the end of this one that Smith is just getting into her stride with her endeavour, as indeed she’ll need to if ‘Summer’ is both to improve on this confident, magisterial and appropriately angry work as well as to tie the themes of the quartet up into a coherent, cyclical whole.

Spring, the season of new life and new beginnings – and, of course, new hope. Here we have two linked stories – a literary-inspired one featuring Richard, an ageing TV director facing up to the death of Paddy, his confidante and occasional scriptwriter; and a contemporary one featuring Brit(tany), a detainee custody officer in an immigration removal centre, and a precocious child named Florence whose powers of persuasion prompt Brit to do some detective work of her own (and in her own self-interest) following an incident which had passed into legend at her IRC. Both stories, both halves of the novel, are brought together in Kingussie, in the Scottish highlands, in which Gàidhlig and the use of language features alongside reflections on the clearances which encouraged waves of migration out of Scotland (from where refugees moved into Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others).

Readers familiar with the series will quickly recognise the repetition of the approaches and themes that Smith has adopted in the other two novels so far: there are literary allusions to Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels, to which Smith here add some TS Eliot and some Shelley; there is again a love of Charlie Chaplin brought to the characters inhabiting each novel by one who figures in them all; there are stunning word plays (Andy Hoffnung is a TV play of Richard’s and Paddy’s about the Holocaust while an die Hoffnung (‘dedicated to hope’) is the theme uniting the two stories (vivunt spe) as well as allowing the ghost of fascism to unite the history and the contemporary); the Auld Alliance is the name not just of a B&B in Kingussie but a historic way of France and Scotland dealing with growing over-mighty English nationalism as well as the name of an essential character (while Kingussie itself is a word play); a woman artist (here, Tacita Dean) acts as a prompt for reflections on the contribution of art and artists in helping us interpret and understand our society and whose work underpins one of the themes of the novel (clouds); there is a vignette of an encounter with jobsworth officialdom in the guise of transport police (here not as comical as in the set-piece counters in the previous two volumes, and briefer, but amusing nonetheless); and there is repeated interest in the ability of outsiders to engage in word play and promote the use of language rather better than domestic characters, with an interesting comment on relationships at a time when Britain is re-examining its own relationships with Europe and the rest of the world.

The railway is both an actual thing in itself, carrying the characters to their destination, as well as a metaphor for something happening in the novel. Postcards – scenes in and out of life – are again a key prompt for the action. And, of course, the shadowy SA4A organisation again makes an appearance – here rather more overtly than hitherto since it runs the IRC in which Brittany works (and in which the corruption of her own innocence against her better nature by becoming a part of the ‘machine’) is a source of shame just as much as IRCs are themselves). Furthermore, jokey references to contemporary slogans of political life not only convey significances which drip with meaning and with acerbic, mocking humour, they also call to mind that this is Smith’s own latterday version of Dickens’s ability to write quickly, in serialisation form for immediate publication, with both acting as chronicler and social and moral critic of the injustices of the times in which they live. It is no accident that Smith draws heavily here on her own work with refugees.

This is an intelligent, confident novel, one not afraid to show its learning even if the touch is sometimes a little heavy, from one of Britain’s premier wordSmiths which shows signs of a tighter plotting than the weaknesses which somewhat marred its predecessor. Indeed, the one plot weakness here can be explained in terms of the novel’s recurring theme of hope: that the hope of a moment’s reconciliation can prompt the taking of apparently outlandish risks. Furthermore, the anger at what British society is allowing itself to become – at the frog failing to notice the steady increase in the temperature of the water in which it believes it is swimming while actually it is being cooked – is here conveyed in soliloquies which are more direct, more acute and (even) more passionate than before.

Smith’s over-riding theme in this series, aided by the non-linear approach to her narratives, is the circularity of all things – that, just as much as seasons come and go, and the natural world is prompted by the passing of time, the politics of human existence sees both familiarity and renewal in the repetition of events. There are not necessarily happy endings but, with each fresh awakening ought to come a more ‘woke’ experience alongside, it is to be hoped, a little more learning and a little more ability to be a little cleverer than before as each cycle comes round again in which we need to recognise what we can learn from older people while passing the baton to the young, the precocious, the dynamic and the idealistic.

In the meantime, roll on Summer.

Are we hanging up on landlines? (text)

A little while ago, I blogged about a column I had started to write for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU.

It appears I didn’t disgrace myself totally, and the union was kind enough to invite me back to the house for a second column which has now appeared in the summer 2019 edition of the journal. So I thought it about time to post the text of the first. It’s just the text so, for the graphics and a cartoon by the wonderful Tony Kelly you’ll need to log in. Working in the media and entertainment industry – then you will be a member already, right?

Are we hanging up on landlines?

In 1998, when I first joined the staff of STE (later Connect), the union for professionals in communications, I received several industry briefings penned by Roger Darlington, then head of research at our sister organisation, the Communication Workers Union, and more recently your former columnist.

Roger’s briefings helped me get to grips with the technical issues I would be dealing with as a novice. One provided facts and figures on the shape of the industry and the growing influence of mobile and the internet. Another described the UK’s telephone numbering system, based on area codes drawn up in the 1950s from the first letters of the town where the call was placed and their location on the telephone dial (or keypad).

So it is with a sense of the circularity of things that I write my first column on… telephone numbering.

I’m no mathematician and nor, I suspect, are many of those reading this magazine. But in an increasingly digitalising world, numbers do, indeed, make the world go round.

For example, whenever you type or click on a URL – the language-based website address of somewhere you want to visit on the web – your device converts that language into a string of numbers before delivering the page you require. It’s increasingly true of telephony, too, Already, more and more people are using apps like Skype, Messenger and WhatsApp to make phone calls.

Switched Off

By the mid-2020s, it’s likely the analogue Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will be switched off completely with the intention of you – seamlessly, of course – making all your phone calls over the internet instead (in effect, talking while using 0s and 1s).

That is, of course, if anyone is still making telephone calls by then.

Ofcom has recently published new research on the future of the UK’s telephone numbering system, realising that, over the last six years alone, our time spent on landlines has halved while our consumption of mobile data has risen exponentially. In fact, we used 10 times more mobile data in 2017 than in 2012.

There are 610 area codes in the UK; and the numbering system has facilitated the availability of 1.3bn telephone numbers – enough for nearly twenty for every man, woman and child among us.

So, does a numbering system oriented towards area codes still make sense? We live in a world in which there is no need to remember telephone numbers, since our devices do this for us. An increasing number of us, especially younger people, prefer to have our contact with the outside world based on text rather than talk.

In truth, we have been moving away from this sort of world for some time: the 01734 for Reading, for example, makes sense to an aficionado in a way in which 0118 9xx xxxx (ever since 1998) does not.

It is also possible to buy telephone numbers in a different area – a trick known to cold callers to make their origin look familiar.

Meanwhile, our devices convert that sometimes only half-familiar sequence of numbers belonging to someone on an incoming call into a recognisable system based on their name – a helpful way of allowing us to screen our calls and, thereby, exercise an element of control over the numbers that prompt our world.

Perhaps it is time, then, to say goodbye to a system based on geographical numbers – and hello to one based on a little creative abstraction.

Corncrake on a stomp

Captured tonight, through somewhat foggy windows as a result of a salt encrustation following today’s cool and misty weather (and not because I haven’t cleaned them in absolutely ages), a corncrake in rare disco mode.

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Interspersed with moments of more classical corncrake posery (still and erect, and with as haughty a demeanour as can be managed by a bird that is pure comedy to look at), this one was engaged in somewhat odd flurries of wing flapping, throwing itself around the grass and, well, dancing in the spotlight cast by the brief moments of early evening sun. What animals get up to when they think you’re not looking, eh?

I suspect this is, in reality, a young bird that is testing out its wing power as well as its energy levels – and for very good reason too with a flight to the African savannah ahead of it in just a few weeks. No short hop, that, from the north-west tip of South Uist for a bird that you’re not sure would actually make it across to the other side of the bay without wheezing, potentially falling apart without a Tuffers-style break of some kind.

But, ahead of all that, it’s nice to see that s/he is also a bit of a chip off the old block: inhabiting her/his father’s favourite north-east triangle of the garden and, crossing through the corncrake-sized gap in the fence repeatedly, showing the same healthy disrespect for border fences. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to style and comportment (see below, passim). Other corncrakes I’ve heard recently – but ours: not a peep in the last few months. One suspects one hasn’t needed to – ours has definitely got himself sorted.

As for the imaginary soundtrack for our new, young corncrake’s Sunday night fever, well – it could be anything from cajun fiddle- and ‘tit fer-led psycho hoedown mayhem to something a little more modern. But I can’t get past the Brothers Johnson’s mighty Stomp (Everybody make it to the top…) – any excuse to refresh this one is just fine by me.

(Nicely shows off my newly-repainted fence, too 🙂 )

Book Review: Another Planet

With a highly successful memoir on the bookshelf, plus a follow-up volume about the art of singing, and her bimonthly column in The Staggers, as well as an appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2018 and the strongly-autobiographical Record (in this context, not least on ‘Smoke’) the same year, Another Planet provides a new angle in Tracey Thorn’s mining of the seam of her own life story for creative juices, now that live performances of her music are out of her life. Here, we have her reflections on growing up as a teenager in Brookmans Park, in suburban Hertfordshire, drawn from her own assiduously-written diaries, kept since she was 13, and amidst reflections sparked by two visits back there for virtually the first time since leaving home, rupturously, in 1981. My hardback copy with a personal dedication, too (thanks, Trac(e)y!).

It’s clear that Thorn writes prose as she writes songs: there are not only quotes from songs, with copyright acknowledgements, but other snippets of half-lines creep in, too – her own ‘Missing’ is there, as is some Springsteen (‘The River’). The idea of songs as prose gives us a major clue to Thorn’s approach to songwriting – her personal prose style highlights that her songs, too, are also deeply personal. Another Planet reveals that, in her case, the origins lie in her relationship with her parents and it is perhaps this, rather than the expressed boredom of growing up in Brookmans Park, which is the prompt for her long-lasting, and continually refreshed, creativity. Twas ever thus – and not only via Philip Larkin (who , interestingly, would still have been librarian at the University of Hull when Thorn was an undergraduate there) – but of all teenagers rebelling against stultifying authority, from Johnny Strabler onwards.

Another Planet‘s title is not drawn from that song by Peter Perrett or any other such reference, but is a deeply personal (and upsetting) observation which strongly resonates with her own relationship with her parents. It seems not so much that her parents did not understand her, as in their reaction to her perhaps not particularly accessible (not least to them) but strongly personal second album, Out of the Woods, but they had little appreciation for who she was or her own desire to make her own way in a world which was contrary to theirs and in the underaking of which she so demonstrably rejected their values. This leads Thorn to some interesting, if rather light, ruminations on the role of suburbia in generating creativity, not least among musicians, as well as, rather more importantly, to the less understood role (at the time) that her relationship with her parents at 18 had for her song-writing, style of singing and shy stagecraft. The book is dedicated to her siblings and, tellingly and forgivingly, to the (now deceased) parents they shared.

The diaries in this volume stop at 18 which is fair enough in the sense that, with the ‘Marine Girls’ already underway, this is enough of the prequel to the material covered in Bedsit Disco Queen. Furthermore, with her moving on from Brookmans Park, the reflections on growing up in suburbia surely ought to cease. And yet there is little clue in the diary entries mentioned here about suburbia; Thorn’s concerns are those of many teenagers – school, work, music, parents, discos and, in her case, boys – with her locational milieu providing little conscious contribution to her understanding of her life at that time. As, perhaps, it could only do in retrospect. We should also note that the diary entries are circumspect, available space being occasionally the key not only in regarding the importance of what is left out at the time (as well as regarding any other prying eyes that might have seen it), but what Thorn has also chosen to leave out, and put in, now some forty years later. We are getting the Thorn-as-teenager that Thorn herself wants us to see. This is absolutely fine, and not only from a private person, with teenagers of her own, but it does allow us to provide some reservations about her notes on the boredom and frustration of growing up in suburbia because we also know – from Desert Island Discs – that Thorn, as a child, enjoyed living where she did. Though perhaps we shouldn’t draw too many parallels between children and teenagers.

Occasionally somewhat disjointed thematically – the work has its origins in a lengthy essay on growing up in suburbia as well as various pieces of other published writing – Another Planet has a fantastically appropriate and judiciously-chosen cover from the work of Gavin Watson and I defy anyone of our age not to connect with it at some level. I say ‘ours’ deliberately as Thorn, one year older than me, was also born in the front bedroom of the house she grew up in, we both left homes in the south-east of England to go to higher education institutions in the north-east and even Thorn’s aversion to driving shares some aspects of my own. Her first solo work – A Distant Shore – proved as strongly influential on me in my twenties as the emotions she was under at the time were on her writing and singing of it.

Part-memoir, part-social history, part-conversation, this is unmissable for any fans of Tracey Thorn – and for, that matter, anyone born in the early to mid 1960s.

New car post

That trip to Dundee I referred to below was to pick up a new car.

For one reason or another, it was decision time on the Nissan Leaf in which we have been running around for the past two years – chief among them being that it was the end of the two year period of the personal contract payment scheme under which we bought the car and which seems to prompt the majority of finance-based car purchases [registration] these days. After some research we – well, this means my partner, really, given my continuing non-driver status – opted for a Kia Niro plug-in hybrid as opposed the fully electric Leaf:

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This is not the e-Niro currently causing a bit of a stir in electric car circles but one whose electric battery is supported by a petrol engine.

With an electric car, battery capacity in terms of mileage is the key and the advances in the capacity of the Leaf since 2016 are fair enough, but insufficient to compensate for the lack of advances in the charging infrastructure. It was interesting – though not at all surprising, based on experience – to read in the Pink ‘Un recently that the rapid, but still very low, take-up of electric cars is being held back by the infrastructure (hat-tip: tweet by Prospect Research & Economics). A journey of any distance is fraught with the fear that still-infrequent charging stations will be occupied or otherwise not operating, and driving on routes off the islands, and through remote rural areas, this is a fear that is ever-present.

If you’re not sure of your geography of Scotland, you’ll need to bear with me for the next bit (or otherwise have a suitable online map at hand!). From Mallaig, where we dock on the most convenient ferry route, we can (with a full battery on setting off from the house) reach Fort William (otherwise, it means a charge on disembarking in Mallaig) and then, on a journey to Perth or Dundee: 140 miles from Mallaig) that means a further stop, usually in Tyndrum or Crianlarich. If the Fort William charger isn’t working, a stop at Glencoe Mountain Resort is required and if that’s not working, Tyndrum is only reachable from our house with extremely careful driving, a favourable wind and fingers firmly crossed. Which did happen on one memorable journey.

Stopping is not the problem – it’s good to take a break – and nor is the time to charge which represents an inconvenience but a small one in respect of the carbon emissions saved by not using a car with a combustion engine. The difficulty is the strategic one of planning charging stops around having a fall-back plan, since the infrequency with which stations exist on our route to Perth (which has several options, once we get there) – Mallaig (one rapid charger), Fort William (ditto), Glencoe (ditto), Tyndrum (two!)/Crianlarich (one), Crieff (one) – implies the potential for difficulties in the not infrequent case of chargers not being in use or in case of them being already occupied (and increasingly so with higher numbers of electric cars on the roads). Worst of all, however, is that this situation has not improved in the last two years: these stops were our options back in 2017 when we first went electric and it’s this failure to invest in the infrastructure which prompted our decision to go for a plug-in hybrid.

The Kia Niro’s battery can be charged via a plug-in lead (as in the pic above) and this will deliver a journey of up to about 34 miles with the battery as automatic preference to petrol. This means my partner’s journey to work (c. 26 miles) is battery driven – or largely so: the car will mix and match and it won’t simply exhaust the electric battery before kicking in the petrol engine; it all depends on speed, wind and road conditions and level of battery charge. Consequently, and on initial experience, she gets to work rarely on the battery alone but consuming no more than two miles of petrol. Furthermore, we have the flexibility of not having to worry about charging stations on longer journeys.

This seems to me to indicate the likely direction that electric cars will take: great for those with short journeys with the potential to charge at home (and/or at work); not quite hopeless, but certainly stressful, on long journeys which, without a reformation in the charging infrastructure, most people simply won’t attempt in an electric. Most car journeys may well be short ones – nearly 70 per cent are shorter than five miles (p. 176), according to research which is admittedly fifteen years old but which is probably unlikely to be substantially different now. Such a direction is fair enough, up to a point, but if we continue to leave the charging infrastructure to the market, there will be no change and this will, as a result, heavily jeopardise carbon emission targets whatever the warm words at the G20 and those dates by which the petrol engine should be phased out (currently 2040 in the UK; 2032 in Scotland). [UPDATE 1/7/19: The UK government’s plan, crucially, excludes hybrids; while the status of hybrids under the C40 fossil-fuel-free streets initiative, under which (parts of) London (amidst a number of other cities around the world) will be zero emission by 2030, is unclear although it seems that hybrids are also excluded.]

To meet such targets we need hugely improved public transport infrastructure: electric cars (certainly on current trajectory) won’t be enough by themselves (and with a reminder that the rare materials used in electric cars have their own environmental and social impacts). But, in the context, and given the long road there is to row back given the lack of investment in public transport over the last thirty years, plus the popularity of driving around the highlands and islands (NC 500, anyone?), we do need our governments both at UK level and at the level of the nations of the UK to work closer with industry to invest in a charging infrastructure which provides the opportunity for longer journeys to be made by electric cars, too – and not only on the motorways but across all major transport routes, and with a frequency which delivers suitable and easily reachable options for charging. With most electric cars these days being Type 2 (one of the problems of allowing the market to ‘decide’ is that charging types are several), there is the potential to build a charging infrastructure which works at least for the majority.

But we do need policy-makers actually to get down to making a decision and then taking some action on it. Which, in our current sclerotic terms and given the pathetic response to the Extinction Rebellion so far, will take policy leadership of the kind we absolutely lack.

Sunset palette – midsummer 2019

A band of cirrus and (alto)stratus (I think…) clouds stretched across the sky at sunset last night on a calm, still evening, giving an astonishing colour palette at sunset. Out of the (ahem) 43 pictures I took, a number somewhat driven by Saturday night mojitos but which can, mostly, be justified in the calm of Sunday morning, here’s a selection of eight. Hope you enjoy them!

First, taken just before 9pm, the clouds in question with the photo just catching the sun’s flare at the left hand edge. It had been a warm and mostly sunny day, giving the chance for an al fresco dinner (which usually implies Greek salad and an accompanying drop or two of ouzo):

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At about ten past ten, well into in the golden hour, but with the clouds at the top of the picture providing a slate grey contrast to the sun. The camera lens has bent these clouds slighly upwards left to right – the actual position was closer to the horizontal than these suggest:

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Next, zooming slightly in on golden seas and highlighting a few sunset worshippers among the local population of sheep:

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At sunset, with the the position of the sun at 325º on the compass, and the time on the clock: 2232:

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About ten minutes later and zooming in, a little slightly further westwards than the position of the sun at sunset, to enhance the intensity of the orange colours:

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At ten past eleven, with the sky darkening and the colours beginning to shift to blues and greys:

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Looking north-east, with the red light from the Dark Island turbine prominent, now just after midnight and with plenty of light still left in the sky, and with the soft greys of the clouds leaving plenty of gaps for midnight blues (not that one – Ed):

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And finally, a panorama of the bay from a little earlier in the evening (precisely at sunset), looking north to east (horizon line slightly bent at the north, left hand, edge) with pink reflections both in the clouds and in the water:Kilaulay sunset reflection 3

Truly lucky to live in such a beautiful place – and with evenings such as these providing ample compensation for the days (and nights) when it can get a bit rough out there.

Outer Hebrides and Shetland: a tale of two archipelagos

Just back from a short trip to the mainland, firstly to Dundee (more about which in a later post) and then up to Shetland. My partner lived on Shetland for a while and still has friends and family there. It’s thus a place I know quite well, having visited and toured it quite frequently, although I haven’t been there since September 2015, a year before I moved to Uist.

A couple of postcard snaps will follow (eventually), but I was struck by a couple of things during the visit. Firstly, and flippantly, it was several degrees cooler than on Uist. Arriving at Sumburgh Airport in the early afternoon, the wind delivered a proper and sustained blast of chilled air during the short walk from the plane to the (expanded) terminal building; and, surrounded by guard rails, towards one end of the terminal on the floor sat one massive heater, glowing red and fully on. On 31 May. We do indeed get bad weather on Uist, and perhaps a generally warm and dry spring has made me quickly forget how bad it can be, but it seemed right there and then and for much of the following, largely damp and cool, week that the northern isles do have it worse. Perhaps, being so far north – it is level with Bergen, after all, and half-way to the Faeroes – it’s just that it’s naturally colder as a result of being at 60° latitude.

Secondly, and with greater significance for my post, I was struck – and not for the first time – by the contrasting levels of economic development between the Hebrides and Shetland. Extended Sumburgh terminal building apart, there is an absolutely stunning new campus for Anderson High, the secondary school, whose 900 students enjoy a four-storey, two-winged education block as well as gracefully angled halls to accommodate students from outside the mainland. Despite being next to the Lerwick sports centre, Anderson High has its own sports grounds including all-weather track, grass pitches, nets for throwing events and swimming pool, located at the very front of the campus and sending a clear message for students walking past them to get to their classes about the importance of sporting endeavour. The Island Games were taking place there that Saturday, and raucous cheers spoke of the message being loudly received. There are at least four new food and drink places which have opened up in Lerwick, offering a range of interesting and well-crafted food and each offering extensive craft beer menus (in bottles and cans and on tap) and taking a pride in local produce: Fjarå; The Dowry; and The String as well as an excellent French cafe in C’est la Vie. All were busy, even outside the weekend. It’s not just in the capital: the cafe up at Braewick has also been significantly and beautifully extended. Furthermore, a second brewery (beer being something of a bellwether of development, in my view) – Lerwick Brewery – has added to its range and styles of beer in addition to the continued presence of the longer established Valhalla. And the houses are bigger, more opulent, while Lerwick supports both a Tesco and a Co-Op, in large supermarket form.

The facts confirm the impressions. GDP in Shetland is significantly larger than in the Hebrides and the gap is growing. While the economy of Eilean Siar has struggled to a growth of 12 per cent over the last ten years, the economy of Shetland has bounded ahead, with nary a pause even during the great recession, by over 40 per cent.

GDP Shetland and Eilean Siar

(Figures from Eurostat; unit of measure – million units of national currency. See also the Eurostat press release on the release of its 2017 NUTS 3 figures in February this year.)

And, to rub it in further, Shetland has fewer people: 23,080 (only Orkney is smaller in Scotland) compared to 26,950 living on Eilean Siar, so the gap in per capita GDP (£38,160 plays £22,190) is a canyon of 72%.

The major source of the difference is likely to be North Sea Oil which is driving Shetland’s economy via Sullom Voe much more than the agrarian one is driving our own (of course both Shetland and the Hebrides share an agrarian history and, while sheep are still very evident on Shetland, smallholdings and crofting are much less the case there these days). Oil has been a source not only of jobs in Shetland and, therefore, opportunities for people to remain, or return, there but also the high-tech skills with which come high wages and which, in turn, lead to money being spent in the shops (and the bars and cafes). Here, without an oil boom (and despite the rumours), it is not apparent that there has been significant skills transfer from the MoD presence, now in slow and steady withdrawal phase, while we are also faced with the further erosion of the skills base should HIAL proceed with its plans for the remote control of airport towers which my old union, Prospect, is fighting hard.

Both oil and small-scale sheep farming of course have their issues, the first from the highly-effective Extinction Rebellion protests which have led the government to plan to legislate for a zero carbon future by 2050 (though this is indeed less impressive than it looks), and which raises serious questions about whether those prospective oil finds should actually be left under the sea anyway; the second from Michael Gove and Brexit and the extent to which the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) government, farm policy being a devolved matter, will be both able and willing to replace CAP payments lost after Brexit.

A green view would be that GDP growth is an inefficient way of measuring economic vitality since it omits much of the voluntary and not-for-profit work that keeps things ticking over; while it is certainly true that it ignores quality of life and greater well-being – the reason many people move to the northern and western isles (though we should also not ignore that several serious health problems associated with isolation are not uncommon) – as well as community life and culture (though it is also possible to find both these things in London, too). And it is absolutely not that there is nothing going on here – the new and very welcome Islands Revival blog recently detailed many of the initiatives now being undertaken on Uist.

What is required is, as Islands Revival commented, not only an end to managed decline – the council response to austerity and driven by the rut of population decline – but continued and further public and private investment. With significant scale private investment likely to follow, or be inhibited by, the dynamics of economic growth, public sources and projects occupy the central position in generating the new opportunities required to stem the decline and inspire regeneration. The energetic and enthusiastic Scottish Islands Team, responsible for a lengthy consultation tour discussing the National Islands Plan, and recently also in Shetland too, needs to take away that message from its trip to Uist and Benbecula on Monday and Tuesday next week. In the meantime, that spaceport up on North Uist (coincidentally one of its rivals is Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland archipelago) is sorely needed.

I did promise you photographs. Here is a sunny view of the tombolo connecting St. Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland (complete with coo and young ‘uns):

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And here, on a rather more dreich day in Lerwick, are boats of neighbours, occupying peacefully adjacent spaces:

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The Euros and Brexit: stirring the muddied pool

I cast my vote on Thursday last week for the type of Europe I wanted to see over the next five years: socialist, re-distributive and for the many, not the few; for a fair, free and sustainable Europe. Elections of MEPs to the European Parliament should reflect the type of Europe we want to see – though, of course, these are not normal times in the UK and these elections, organised in haste and poorly with regard to European citizens excluded from the process, were not normal ones.

It would be a mistake to see these elections as reflective of how people would vote in a general election – a party with deliberately no policies other than ‘Brexit’ would not then top the poll when its candidates were compelled to say what they think about all the things they were deliberately silenced on in the run-up to last Thursday; and neither in a general election would the main parties be almost absent from campaigning, giving Farage and his odd mix of candidates such a free run. The only leaflet this household ever received was indeed the early one from the Brexit Party (and that includes the SNP whose favours were, otherwise, the only ones pinned to the lamp-posts outside our local polling station).

One of the things I note about this particular set of elections is that they have re-taught the lesson that electors cannot be taken for granted and that, if you don’t campaign, you don’t get their vote. It’s not so much that the parties that were clear on Brexit – either for or against – did better as a result than the mainstream parties who were less clear; it’s also that an absence of campaigning gives people other than the die-hards few reasons to vote for you. Here in Eilean Siar, it’s probably therefore not a surprise that both the SNP and the Brexit Party (44% and 20% of the vote, respectively) did better than they did across the rest of Scotland (38% and 15%).

One of the other things is that the parties who did well in the UK – the liberals and the greens – also did well in the rest of Europe. Elsewhere, this is likely to reflect the awareness resulting from the high publicity given to the actions of, and the surge in support for, Extinction Rebellion. There may, as a result, be good reason to assume that the European demos is alive and kicking, despite those who wish to deny its existence. It’s also likely to be the case that, right across Europe, the increased turnout (again above 50%) reflects higher participation among those aged 18-24, and that voter registration campaigns, and imaginative policies that appeal to younger people, are increasingly likely to bear fruit at the ballot box.

More generally, and because several parties had campaign platforms that were openly pro- or anti-EU, the election results do allow us to read into them some lessons for what they mean for Brexit. It is clear that the polarisation in UK politics around Brexit, with attitudes towards remain/leave counting heavier than traditional party loyalties, is continuing. We know, for example, how much of the voting electorate this time around are dead-set on leaving the EU even (or perhaps particularly) without a deal. Based on the turnout, this one in three of voters falls to around 22% of even the registered electorate who were qualified to vote. There is, therefore, no mandate for no deal and Parliament is – and will continue to be – right to reject it.

With 27 seats and a vote share of 32%, the Brexit Party did better than UKIP in 2014 (24 seats and 28%), before the farce of the intervening years saw most of its MEPs desert – but not so much better; and, indeed, that it did apparently improve was within the likely margins of error of a low poll and given the more or less free run it was given at the campaign by the mainstream parties. We don’t know from this that support for Brexit is increasing – and, indeed, it is likely that it is not, based on what we know about the age patterns of voters in this context and the fairly entrenched views that electors hold. It’s also well worth pointing out here that the pro-EU platforms put out by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in the UK made their votes weigh more heavily than those of the Brexit Party and UKIP, even before we build in the greater complications posed by the similarly pro-EU support of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales and the nuanced positions of the mainstream parties. And it’s also well worth contrasting the number of votes cast for no deal parties (5.9m) with the 6.1m people who have signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

Farage has spoken of the results driving his wish to join the negotiations on Brexit. Well, as a career politician who has made his career while denying its own existence, he would do – but this is meaningless. There are no negotiations to join – and it’s not clear what a party committed to a ‘clean break’ Brexit based, essentially, on no deal would have to add in any case. The EU is content with the agreement it has reached (even if it has gone a lot further than some domestic politicians, like Macron, wanted) and, while it would no doubt re-open talks were the UK’s/May’s existing red lines to be relaxed, it is clear that the accommodation of a representative with such a poor record of activity in the European Parliament, and at least one of whose new intake has already talked of making life difficult in Brussels, is not going to persuade them to do so.

And neither is a new Tory leader – for party political reasons almost certainly to be a committed Brexiteer – likely to lead to the EU to consider re-opening negotiations. While it might in some respect leave the EU a little clearer than hitherto about what it is the UK actually wants, the threat of a no deal Brexit within the EU counts less than the threat to the EU single market of any bad deal which jeopardised it. And I don’t think that such a stance is negotiatory bluster: for the EU, no deal is indeed better than a bad deal. Further, as we know, there will be no free trade deal discussion in a post-no deal scenario unless the outstanding issues that have proved apparently so difficult for no-dealers so far (the border on the island of Ireland, the settlement of the UK’s remaining financial obligations and citizens’ rights) are properly dealt with first. There will be a polite reception in Brussels, as befits the arrival of a ‘world king’, but the threat of no deal is likely to lead the EU to choose not to extend beyond 31 October the extension under which we are now working.

So, the European election, in combination with the aftermath of May’s duressed resignation, has made a no deal Brexit in October much more likely. The few votes given in the election to the mainstream parties seeking to negotiate around how to get a withdrawal agreement through parliament highlights the polarised leave/remain UK in which we live – and, thus, the dangers of being caught in the middle. Of course, we do not know how those who did not turn out last Thursday would vote in a general election – and we may yet return to the two-party politics (at UK level) we last spoke of as recently as less than two years ago. But, that doesn’t seem likely as long as we rumble along without a resolution to the issue which continues substantially to divide us.

With the existential threat now facing the Tories, the time is right – in the likely absence of a general election – to press for another referendum. There is no track through parliament for a negotiated settlement and neither, on this most recent evidence of what the public thinks, is it clear that there is public appetite for one, anyway. Asking the public at this point what it wants to do now – in particular, whether it wants to remain in the EU or leave with no deal, given what we now know and given that leaving without a deal was not the argument put up by those promoting leave back in 2016 – is, therefore, the only way forwards. Such a binary question might overcome some aspects of the objections of those who do not want to be asked about their views in general, as before; and it is also likely to produce the decisive result required to allow us to put this issue to bed.

Perhaps then, after a fresh referendum based on a binary no deal/remain choice, given the failure of and apparent appetite for a negotiated settlement, we can make a focused start on bringing our polarised nation back together: a referendum and then the general election to wipe clean the post-2017 slate and facilitate a fresh start.

Searching for adventure…

The corncrakes have been a little late returning this year – late April in some parts of the island but only on 11 May did they make it as far as Aird A’Mhachair right up in the north-west corner. Lack of cover from the yellow flag iris and the nettles, which have only in the last week or so grown tall enough to offer one of the UK’s most elusive ‘native’ birds sufficient cover in which to skulk, is possibly one reason for why. ‘Ours’ – nesting on the croft for the last several years – made it back the following day and, spending a few hours in the garden on a few days of spring weather this week, I’ve heard three, possibly four, calling males in the area.

The one which inhabits our croft is, just possibly, Aird A’Mhachair’s least shy corncrake, and I’ve seen him twice this week. Not, like last year, staying on the outside of the fence. Oh, no. That’s no longer for him. I saw him firstly on the day after his arrival (you tend to hear rather than see corncrakes), loping purposefully, neck stretched, across the middle of the lawn (well: grass, really), cut this year shorter than a new squaddie’s haircut, making his way for the fence and the rather denser cover outside, and just the wrong side of the remains of a line of daffodils which sheltered him perfectly from view from the house.

And, then again this afternoon – I heard him from the drive at the front of the house, closer by than hitherto, and, wondering if he had taken up his old calling post on a stone on the outside corner of the fence, dashed through to take a look. No – sadly not there. But then, looking a little to the right, again, standing more or less in the open in the middle of the lawn (…) and still calling proudly. Grabbing the camera – kept close at hand for just such an eventuality – he made his way towards the fence, this time the right side of the daffodils, before taking up a perch apparently on a new calling stone, this time on the inside of the garden and just about 30′ from the window. He was perfectly happy for me to open the window and, not only that, but to pose and issue a few more calls – that strangely, unbird-like sound, a bit like scraping your fingernails quickly across the teeth of a plastic comb; a bit like a couple of sharp twists of a supermarket acrylic pepper grinder.

Here he is, in full calling flow:

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And then here, not looking in the least embarrassed at such a display of open, untypical extrovertness (and at quarter past three in the afternoon, too):

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He’s calling again now, as I write – partly it’s looking for a mate; partly, being possessively territorial birds, it’s advertising precisely which bit of the village is his.

Maybe he knows it’s late in the year and there’s not a lot of time left to raise one, and hopefully two, broods before setting off again for that long migration across the Sahara and back to the African savannahs. But, then again, maybe this particular one realises that searching for adventure is, indeed, the type of life to find….

UPDATE 20 May: Not the best picture (he was a few feet further away than on Thursday), but here he is again calling out for all he’s worth. Mostly, the calling has been infrequent – this afternoon, a pattern of four ’rounds’ and then a small break. I’m guessing that the infrequency reflects that he has a mate already and is just reminding all and sundry that this is his part of the village; as opposed to the greater urgency surely demanded by the need to find a mate.

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