The Small Isles are wonderfully varied chunks of land in the sea of the Hebridies that once formed the lip of a volcano. I am united with Maxwell MacLeod (6 September
) in adoring them, but perhaps where we part is in how to handle the numbers game. All these islands supported substantial populations in the past, so why have so many people gone? Surely, there could be a fundamentally better way of maintaining our unique rural places?
Maxwell's estimated annual running costs seem huge when applied to the small numbers of folk that remain, although the high fixed costs of services provision for many communities in the remoter parts of the Highlands and Islands are probably comparable. If this already faltering basis of service provision by diktat is under threat, could distant government not be active in seeking to devolve more decision-making?
What these communities suffer from more than anything is the application of external forces on them over which they have no control, and I'm not just referring to the weather. Take Rum, for example, largest Small Isle and singularly mountainous, yet which once supported a population of 500. Bought by a 19th-century industrialist, it was turned into a wilderness where imported deer could run free, but people were discouraged.
For the most part, deer still roam freely on Rum and they have been intensively studied there for decades. Why? What happened with Rum occurred in most of Highland Scotland. The invention of the rifle produced in sporting estates a grotesque parody of nature which destroyed much of the biodiversity and reduced pasture to bog. Many cattle were once reared on Skye and I suspect Rum could do that too from carbon-neutral grazing.
Some aspects of how central authority asserts itself in these communities pay no heed to how inappropriate this may be. Exactly the same alcohol licensing requirements are applied as for a city centre venue, for example, which cost thousands. The main ferry serving the Small Isles seems huge if apparently convenient, so is CalMac's 'big is always best' approach the most effective solution?
A requirement for ownership of agricultural land to be locally vested could have great impact on these islands. Residency requirements apply to crofters, at least nominally, but when it comes to huge tracts of Scotland, anyone can own it, and even maintain their absolute anonymity. Likewise, Kinloch Castle should be owned and controlled by the local community, albeit they might decide to grant a very long repairing lease to a suitable tenant.
Dogma-derived governance policies projected into communities from a remote command centre, rather than informed judgement based on local knowledge and accountability, is rarely a good approach. One way of judging a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable individuals and communities, and yes, these islands are on the edge, in more ways than one.
Imagine that during the conversation about Scottish independence, the British government decided to forbid any chance of a referendum and even though it was the clear will of the Scottish people to have the right to decide, the authorities did everything they could to suppress it. Imagine that the authorities sanctioned the arrest of Scottish government officials deemed to be 'wasting public money' and warned those considered to be supporting the process that they could go to prison.
Imagine too that if the people of Scotland were to ignore these threats and pursue their right to express their views about their future, the British government decided to suspend the Scottish parliament altogether and take back all powers to Westminster. Does that seem like a far-fetched scenario?
Sadly, that's what we are experiencing here in Catalonia, where Spanish police have been on the hunt for any evidence of official publicity about the referendum called for 1 October. They've been looking for and confiscating ballot papers, as well as raiding printers and delivery companies, and have arrested key government officials. The reaction from local people has been swift. They were on the streets within minutes.
No doubt we will also have the traditional sound of protest, the cazarolada
, where thousands of ordinary people around the region will take to their windows and balconies and beat the hell out of their pots and pans in the most simple and yet one of the most potent symbols of grassroots protest I have ever experienced.
At this stage it doesn't appear to matter whether you would vote Yes or vote No, the fact that the government in Madrid is going to these lengths to make sure you don't even get the chance to vote is bound to inflame tensions and make sensible discussion and debate almost impossible. The president of the Catalan parliament has stated that Madrid's actions represent a de facto coup and a clear violation of the rule of law, the Spanish constitution itself and the EU charter of fundamental rights. It also has to be remembered that when Madrid makes these postures it resonates with dark days of old, still fresh in the minds of many, when cruel punishments were meted out here, sanctioned by a dictator and his allies sitting comfortably in Madrid.
While established as a democracy some decades ago, Spain is not like the rest of Europe in the way it is dealing with the legitimate desire of the Catalan people to have the chance to decide how they want to be governed. Here the constitution is seen as immutable, almost like a holy document that cannot be changed, revised or contradicted. Like most holy documents, such views are only held because they help sustain those already in power. As the leftist party, the ERC, has put it, 'can you imagine a country where 75% of the mayors are in favour of holding a referendum and are prosecuted for it?'
The government in Madrid will have to be careful of the optics. Tanks on the streets of Barcelona, a city so recently affected by terror, will not play well on television, but it seems at the moment they are not really aware that the world is watching. Maybe the world needs to have a quiet word with Mr Rajoy and his cronies in government and in the Spanish national parliament.
Whatever happens the relationship between Spain and Catalonia is about to be irrevocably changed – if current events haven't done that already. We can only hope that a peaceful resolution to the current tension will be found, that a crisis can be avoided, and that the people of Catalonia will have the right to decide their fate.
In politics there is nothing new under the sun. The late Sir Teddy Taylor was a master of political spin a generation before the word was coined and, because he had been a journalist himself, he knew instinctively how to 'play' the media of his day.
He was (in)famous for providing journalists with juicy stories laced with apparently outrageous data as part of his never-ending guerilla war against what was then the common market. The provenance of some of these seemingly golden nuggets was uncertain to say the least. Not fake news, perhaps, but not entirely kosher either. And so they became known in the trade as 'Teddy Taylor Facts.'
I was the producer of STV's political weekly 'Ways and Means' when Teddy rang the company's political editor Colin MacKay with just such a tale. As ever, Colin listened patiently as Teddy's attack on Brussels' bureaucrats became more and more strident – a 'something must be done' crie de coeur.
But it was clear Colin was having none of it. Teddy simply wasn't cutting through. Finally, in exasperation he declared, 'Now look Colin, this is not a Teddy Taylor Fact. It's true!'
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