‘Is It Worse to Be Run from Edinburgh or London?’

In his book, the Making of the Crofting Community, the Scottish historian James Hunter quotes a small farmer in the Highlands as saying they “hate us in London but ignore us in Edinburgh.” Standing on the windswept pier at Stornoway, the main town on the isle of Lewis, both metropoles feel like a world away. The twice-daily ferry takes almost three hours just to reach the mainland. From there, it is another 200 miles to the Scottish capital.

There are few places in the United Kingdom further from the corridors of power than the Western Isles, the scenic archipelago of fifteen inhabited ribbons off Scotland’s west coast. Many of the islanders speak Scots Gaelic and rely on farming, fishing and tourism for their income. So what does the prospect of Scottish independence – or staying in the union – mean so far away from Westminster and Holyrood?

The Western Isles is a Scottish National Party stronghold. Both the sitting MP and the member of the Scottish Parliament are nationalists. But when it comes to the referendum Lewis, where the majority of the islands’ population of around 30,000 live, seems as split as the rest of Scotland. “The island is 50/50,” says one local journalist. “People seem pretty settled in their minds. I don’t think the campaigns have made much impact.”

One of the reasons the yes and no sides have struggled to make inroads on Lewis is that the major national concerns are not always the most significant for this island community. Ask someone walking the narrow streets of Stornoway what the big issues are for them and they will most likely mention fuel poverty, the removal of tax relief on ferry freight and local control of revenue levied on using the seabed.

For some there is wariness about whether independence would actually mean more local power for places such as Lewis. The SNP administration at the devolved parliament in Holyrood has displayed a fondness for centralization, bringing policing, emergency services and European funding under central government control. A council tax freeze mandated from Holyrood has left officials in the pebbledashed council offices, built in the 1970s to house a newly created Western Isles local authority, with less control over local affairs than they used to have.

“One of the worries is that it is worse to be run from Edinburgh than London,” says Fred Silver, former editor of the Stornoway Gazette when we met for a balti in Lewis’s only curry house. An Englishman who has spent more than two decades in the Western Isles, Silver sports a blue “Yes” badge but concedes that Edinburgh has not always done right by the islands.

“You can actually demonstrate that the best period for the island was under the Tory government in the 1980s,” he says, citing the creation of a Gaelic television fund, the spread of Gaelic medium education and the establishment of a local enterprise company that has since been disbanded.

Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister in Westminster in Tony Blair’s first administration, has long been one of the strongest critics of the SNP. “Nationalism believes in taking decision making to the centre. Their localism is Scotland,” he says. “There is a very strong philosophy in Scotland just now of centralizing in order to bring everything under ministerial control.”

“There are large areas of public policy that need completely different perspectives in island communities or in very peripheral communities and to be honest there is not a lot of interest in any of that. They will tick the boxes but there is no real understanding of how difficult things are or what is needed,” says Wilson, who was a Labour MP in Ayrshire.

But Alastair Allan, local SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, says that only a “yes” vote would guarantee more powers for island communities. “The decision about what Scotland’s budget is is not ours to make. We pay our taxes to the UK government and they decide what Scotland gets to spend.”

The islands have certainly benefited from the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament, particularly when it comes to changing Scotland’s almost feudal system of land ownership. Around 2500 people own about three-quarters of all private land in Scotland. Take a drive almost anywhere beyond the housing schemes of the Central Belt and you will soon run into vast private estates. The Duke of Buccleuch alone owns some quarter of a million acres.

In 2003, the Labour government in Holyrood introduced the Land Reform Act, which allows local communities to buy the land they live on. While the act has had little impact on the baronial estates on the mainland, it has transformed many island communities. Since its introduction, around 70 per cent of the Western Isles has come under direct community ownership. On islands like Eigg, the local community has been able to raise money to buy the entire island.

For some the community buy-outs on islands like Harris and South Uist are evidence of why Scotland needs independence to fulfil its potential. David Cameron (not the British prime minister – the chair of Community Land Scotland) disagrees. “We have community empowerment now and that has got cross-community support. Whatever happens next week won’t make a whit of difference to us,” he says at the end of a day-long conference on land reform held in the function room of a Stornoway hotel. Among the delegates are representatives from communities across the Western Isles that are at various stages in purchasing the land they live on.

For many on the Scottish islands, the referendum on Thursday is not so much about currency or European Union membership but what the communities themselves will gain either from staying with the UK or being part of an independent Scotland. In 2013, the Western Isles teamed up with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, as part of the “Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign” aimed at securing a better deal for island communities whatever way the vote goes.

In June, the Scottish government in Edinburgh offered island communities control of all income that comes from leasing the seabed for wind farms, piers and boats moorings – money that currently goes to the UK’s Crown Estate – and the devolution of planning to local partnerships. The London government, so far, has promised little.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line”. On such modest proposals, perhaps, are islands (and nations) won and lost.

This piece originally appeared on Vice. 

No Real Case for Continental Drift

This review of Peter Baldwin’s insight new book The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike appeared in The Sunday Business Post a few weeks back:

Last summer, US president Barack Obama announced plans to extend medical cover to more than 31 million uninsured Americans.

To judge by the reaction of certain sections of the US right, you would think the new president was intending to abolish private property and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Socialist Medicine’ and ‘Death to Obama’ screamed fevered protesters in town halls across Middle America, some even brandishing posters of Obama sporting a Hitler moustache.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, the US ‘debate’ on healthcare reform seemed to confirm one of our deepest and most fondly held prejudices: that, on everything from social policy to gun control, America and Europe are poles apart. Where they say ‘tomayto’, we say ‘tomahto’.

But is the schism between the old world and the new world really so wide? Peter Baldwin thinks not. In The Narcissism of Minor Differences – a term coined by Sigmund Freud to account for the negative feelings individuals feel towards those they most resemble – the UCLA-based historian explicitly sets out to demonstrate ‘‘that the commonalities across this divide are greater than the differences’’.

The Narcissism of Minor Differences, the author acknowledges in his prefatory notes, is essentially ‘‘an essay in numbers’’. In it, Baldwin marshals reams of statistical data, most of it drawn from the last decade, into some 250 pages of dense, fact-laden prose, with almost every page illustrated by a bar chart.

These are separated into chapters with inspiring titles such as ‘The Economy’, ‘Civil Society’ and ‘Assimilation’, and there are even 50-plus pages of technical information and references at the back, just in case you want to try his calculations out at home.

Baldwin is one of the foremost experts on 20th century European history in the American academy, and among the stats, graphs and pithy one-liners are some genuinely surprising findings.

On climate change, the United States is often characterised as a nation of deniers and sceptics, but a higher percentage of Americans are very worried about the environment than any European nation bar the Portuguese (who, in case you were wondering, are also the most pessimistic people of any developed country).

Elsewhere, Baldwin shows how Sweden, that much vaunted bastion of fair-minded social democracy, has become a nation of malingerers, with women claiming on average 46 sick days per year and almost 20 per cent of the population registered as disabled (twice the US average).

Scandinavia and its putative ‘social model’ is Baldwin’s primary bete noire, followed closely by the Guardian and Will Hutton (many chapters feature anti-American quotes from the Observer columnist).

Baldwin’s writing is crisp, clipped and generally pleasing on the eye – excepting his occasional penchant for substituting impenetrable German sociological terms for plain English. Gargantuan amounts of information are synthesised concisely, often enlivened by a telling observation:

who, for instance, knew that a 10th-century depiction of Christ appears on every Danish passport? I certainly didn’t, and I’ve lived in North Jutland.

The United States is often accused of being ideologically opposed to the welfare state and failing to offer adequate social services to all its citizens.

However, as Baldwin shows, America is within the European range on all measures of social expenditure – thanks, in no small part, to the failings of our own governments.

Ireland ranks lowest on a whole raft of social indices: public spending on childcare; pensions as a percentage of earning income; total social spending per capita; and public social expenditure, both as a percentage of GDP and per capita. How much worse these figures will be in five years’ time scarcely bears contemplating.

America might not be as different from Europe as we are led – and indeed like – to believe. Nevertheless, the United States does have a higher crime rate, prison population and more murders per capita than any country in the developed world.

On income inequality, an area the US is often accused of lagging behind Europe in, lo and behold, it is: the discrepancy between the highest and the lowest earners in society is highest in America, closely followed by Britain. Similarly, the depth and strength of religious belief in the United States sets it apart from most European nations.

Baldwin is no American apologist: his ire is directed at both the US left and its right, which he acerbically describes as ‘‘intellectually of no consequence’’. If, at times, the straw men he knocks down are so thin as to be practically diaphanous ç the Guardian, an organ of the left intelligentsia with a readership hovering around the 300,000 mark, as the voice of the British people? Not unless you mistake Islington for England – overall the book is erudite, cogently argued and remarkably readable.

I’ll certainly think twice before making another glib remark about gun-totting, bible-bashing, hamburger eating Yanks. But, then again, I’ll possibly make it anyway. Human nature, as Freud knew all too well, is easier to understand than to change.