‘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. 

Hopes and Visions for Holyrood in 2011

Among the many inscriptions on the Canongate wall at Holyrood, it is a terse Scottish proverb that sums up the reality of political life in the Scottish Parliament better than any bon mots from Hugh MacDiarmid or Norman MacCaig: ‘To promise is ae thing, to keep it is anither.’

Despite the enthusiasm that greeted its inception, Holyrood has not always managed to capture the Scottish public’s imagination in the intervening years. The realpolitik of representative democracy – special interests, deal making, coalition building – has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, to dominate popular perceptions of life within the chambers.

With Parliament gearing up for its fourth election, it is an apt time to assess where Holyrood has succeeded – and where the Parliament still has room for improvement. And who better to ask than some of the 19 MSPs that have declared their intention to retire in 2011.

Professor Christopher Harvie has little doubt about the root case of Parliament’s image problem. ‘The public are turned off by Holyrood’s bloated bureaucracy,’ the SNP MSP, who is stepping down after on term, says frankly. ‘When the Parliament was founded it inherited an oligarchy of administrators that have built a cushy regime for themselves but really offer no value added proportionate to the cost of their salaries.’

Harvie says Holyrood suffers from a preponderance of ‘yes men’ and a reactionary fear of freethinkers. ‘From the start an awful lot of people elected to Parliament were safe figures. There was a fair degree of filtering of lists, a lot of interesting characters never got in, people that could have offered a different analysis. At present there is too much central organisation of opinion across all the parties,’ he remarks.

The Mid Scotland and Fife MSP would also like to see more joined-up thinking across government. Drawing on his experience of public life in Germany – he was professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen before coming to Holyrood – Harvie believes that the Office of the First Minister needs strengthening to allow it to act as policy driver for the whole administration and to encourage more long-term planning.

Harvie speaks positively of his time in office but bemoans the lack of creative thinking in Parliament. ‘In my time at Holyrood I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Big Idea. Education, environment, culture – what I call the ‘talky’ ministries – do a lot of talking at nice drinking parties but they’ve not been able to produce any big ideas that people can get enthused about,’ he comments.

Why has Holyrood failed to generate the kind of creative initiatives that could animate Scottish voters? Harvie feels that divisions both within and between ministries are to blame, citing the range of different departments with responsibilities around renewable energy as supporting evidence.

One reasonably large idea that Holyrood has successfully developed is its wide-ranging public petitions process. Irrespective of age or even voting rights, anybody resident in Scotland can petition the Parliament, a right that citizens in most EU countries do not possess.

‘Petitions are judged on their relevance, whether Parliament can do something about the issue and if they’re of public interest,’ explains Robin Harper, a Green Party MSP and member of the Public Petitions Committee.

The committee, which receives some 2,000 petitions in the lifecycle of a Parliament, has met everywhere from Fraserburgh and Fife to Arran and now also accepts electronic submissions.

Harper, who is stepping down from the Lothians seat he has held since 1999, describes the process as ‘innovative’ but feels that not enough money is spent publicising the committee’s work. ‘Getting the public to know what we are and what we are doing is difficult, but when they do turn up for one of our sessions they are clearly impressed,’ he says.

Marlyn Glen, a Labour MSP since 2003, argues that the public petitions committee, of which she is also a member, has helped to break down some of the tribal politics that can still dominate debates in the house. Glen, too, would like to see less focus on the points-scoring of First Minister’s questions and a greater emphasis on ‘cross-party committees like this that show we can work together on issues that can change people’s lives.’

The North East Scotland MSP, who is standing down this year, cites her work on the Equal Opportunities Committee as her greatest achievement at Holyrood but remains disappointed by the level of female representation in Parliament. Having seen the number of women in Holyrood grow from 48, in 1999, to 51, in 2003, the number fell to just 43 in the last election.

Glen firmly believes that a fairer gender balance at Holyrood would benefit Scottish voters. ‘The presence of more women would ensure that Parliament worked better. Most committees are too male dominated, the presence of more women would make a real difference,’ she remarks.

Somewhat paradoxically for an ardent nationalist, Christopher Harvie thinks that the Parliament would be significantly improved by a stronger Scottish voice among the Westminster panjandrums.

‘We’ve got to have a greater presence in London, and especially in the House of Lords. We’ve got to exploit that. Plaid Cymru have done to great success and so should we,’ says Harvie, whose penchant for fine speeches and acerbic witticisms would doubtless play well in the rarefied air of the Lords.

Back at Holyrood, ensuring the widest possible public participation in the life and decision-making of the Parliament requires innovative responses from our MSPs. Whether it is encouraging female participation and expanding the public petitions committee or creating fresh, exciting proposals for Scotland in this new age of austerity, as we head into 2011 our politicians would do well to heed another, more celebrated, maxim from the Canongate wall: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’

This article originally appeared on Newsnet Scotland on December 28.

Will the promise of a new approach bring the same old, same old?

Having voted LibDem in the recent UK election, this comment piece for the excellent Holyrood magazine betrays an anger with Clegg and his ‘new politics’ that I think plenty of left-of-centre voters felt in the immediate aftermath of the coalition agreement, and many still feel today.

“This is the start of the new politics I have always believed in.” Speaking just hours after the announcement of his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg was at pains to reiterate the ‘new politics’ mantra he employed to such devastating effect in the live debates. But just as Clegg’s televisual charm failed to translate into ballot box success, critics are already suggesting that behind this soidisant new dispensation it’s business as usual in Westminster.

It was an unexpectedly exacting election for the Lib Dems. On the back of the telegenic Clegg’s success in the first prime ministerial debate hopes were high among the party faithful that 2010 would be the year that they finally managed to disrupt the Labour- Conservative duopoly. On the day, however, the Liberals failed in their bid to take more than 100 seats, actually losing a number, and were unable to push an unpopular Labour into an embarrassing third place in the popular vote.

Nevertheless, surveying the wreckage on May 7, Clegg, and other Lib Dems, would not have gone hungry for want of crumbs of comfort: over the course of the campaign the party’s media profile increased dramatically, and their vote rose, albeit fractionally from a low base. And, of course, the Liberals woke on Friday morning to find themselves kingmakers in a hung parliament.

The decision to go into coalition with the Tories, driven from the top by Clegg and rubberstamped by the party’s Federal Executive less than a week after the election, might look like great business to party mandarins but it has left many Lib Dem voters bewildered and angry. A sizable proportion of the Lib Dem vote – and the vast majority of the new voters it gained at the recent election – identify themselves on the left of New Labour, were disillusioned by Brown and Blair and attracted by Clegg’s Obama-like promises of change.

Having voted Clegg and got Cameron – and not Brown, as the right-wing press threatened – many will be reluctant to vote Lib Dem in the future, particularly if the new coalition, as expected, pushes through austerity measures not seen since the IMF were invited onto mainland Britain in 1976.

But has Clegg really sold his voters short, or might the Lib Dems in government be able to push through central tenets of their manifesto?

The party’s medium-term electoral survival depends on the latter, and, while it is certainly too early to tell whether the unholy Con-Lib pact will hold, the Liberals have managed to drive an impressively hard bargain (aided, in part, by their salacious overtures to Labour during the negotiations).

The Conservatives will adopt the Lib Dem plan to increase the tax-free allowance on income tax to £10,000, a key pledge for many low earning Liberal voters. Although this is a long-term policy, an initial rise in the allowance is expected, quickly followed by a timetable for the full £10,000. That the Tories have given their backing to a measure that will cost the Exchequer somewhere in the region of £17bn is remarkable given both their commitment to reducing the deficit and the party’s historic neglect of those on low incomes.

Electoral reform was a major plank of the Lib Dems’ general election campaign and dominated much of the horse-trading that followed. Labour tried to tempt Clegg with a pledge to adopt the Alternative Vote method and a referendum on proportional representation, but senior figures in both centre-left parties appear to have had extreme misgiving about the so-called progressive alliance. The deal with David Cameron’s Tories has not brought the radical voting reform that many Liberals had hoped for but the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on the, rather disproportional, Alternative Vote during the course of the next parliament – although the party has already said it will campaign vigorously for a ‘no’ vote in that plebiscite.

Many Lib Dem voters, and members of the parliamentary party, will be hoping that their party can curb the excesses of a Tory government, so feared by many, particularly outside England. Certainly the Conservatives have softened a number of their positions to facilitate the coalition: the Tory manifesto pledge to increase the threshold for inheritance tax has been kicked into touch, and a commission is to be set up to investigate the viability of splitting up the big banks, a proposal that has Vince Cable written all over it.

The sickly sweet love-in between Cameron and Clegg outside No 10 that followed the coalition announcement played well in the gallery but such bonhomie masks deep fissures between the new government partners on a range of key policy issues. The Lib Dems have been forced to abandon their opposition to renewing Trident and building nuclear power stations, and their commitment to joining the euro and an amnesty for illegal migrants. Not all vote winners, granted, but many policies popular with left-of-centre supporters.

Senior Lib Dem officials defended Clegg’s decision to do a deal with Cameron by saying that their party would be punished by voters if it allowed a Conservative minority government to collapse. While this might be true in the south of England, north of the border and in the English regions, the opposite is almost certainly the case. As well as alienating its core vote, the Lib Dems would do well to heed the salutary lessons from Ireland, where the Green Party faces electoral meltdown having entered coalition with the centre-right Fianna Fáil at a time of economic crisis.

The Lib Dems have been locked out of power for 70 years but the party could be counting the cost of its shiny, new cabinet seats for decades to come. The Liberals risk becoming handmaidens to a Tory government that has pledged to make the most savage cuts to public spending in living memory, while, on the opposition benches, Labour has an opportunity to regroup and reclaim its mantle as the undisputed party of the centre-left. We have entered a ‘new politics’, but not quite as Nick Clegg would have envisaged it four weeks ago.