Brian Wilson: Islands’ power a local issue

The Isle of Lewis has been losing people due to a lack of work. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
The Isle of Lewis has been losing people due to a lack of work. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The incessant centralisation of power to Edinburgh is holding Scotland’s peripheral communities back, writes Brian Wilson

I attended a funeral on Saturday in the Pairc area of Lewis. Drive 20 miles south from Stornoway, turn left and then head another dozen miles into furthest south-east Lewis.

Near the junction with the main road, stands a fine memorial to the Pairc Deer Raiders who, in 1887, challenged the might of landlordism by staking their claim to vast acreages of deerforest of which their forebears had been dispossessed.

It was a critical episode in the Lewis land struggle, without which there’d be precious few souls left on this island, just as in so much of the Highlands and Islands. And for anyone who protests the irrelevance of such history to the present, Pairc is an instructive case study.

Although the Crofting Acts gave security of tenure to those who remained, most of the lost lands were never recovered – so the settlement pattern has stayed the same, huddled on the fringes cut off from the mass of natural resources. All subsequent attempts at economic development, or even survival, have occurred within that fundamental distortion.

We were paying our last respects to Donald MacKay, formerly a distinguished convener of the Western Isles Council and the first holder of that post who came from a crofting background. It was witnessing the relentless decline of his own community that first drew Donald into local politics.

He understood with great clarity that the needs of the periphery vary vastly from those of the centre – any centre. And he knew from long, bitter years of watching people leave the absolute precondition for being able to remain in these places – to raise a family, to sustain a language and culture – is the availability of work. That is the alpha and omega of survival on the edge.

All of this led Donald to become the driver behind a council-led strategy adopted in the late 1990s of making the Western Isles a centre for renewable energy. He saw it as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create not only employment but a base of indigenous capital to support investment.

It was an entirely practical, deliverable objective. But when Donald died last week, almost none of it had come to pass. There has been no economic transformation. There is no sub-sea cable to carry power to the mainland. There is still so little waged employment that the haemhorrage of active-aged population continues. In areas like Pairc, the age profile is even more desperate than the headline population statistics.

This is the kind of landscape against which the bid by Scotland’s three islands councils for greater autonomy should be considered. I am sure many other parts of rural Scotland feel the same and there may be no rational reason for distinguishing between their needs and the islands – other than the facts of geographic identity.

Part of the islands’ bugbear is the pretence that there is a homogenous Scottish interest in the major issues that affect them and therefore “Edinburgh knows best”. There is most definitely not – any more than there is a UK or European interest. Within Scotland, there are conflicting interests and priorities which must not be denied.

This obfuscation long pre-dates political devolution. Historically, for example, the low-intensity fishing industry of the Western Isles and other parts of the west coast is all but gone thanks to the insatiable greed of rich and powerful north-east of Scotland interests – far more than by anyone from further afield.

Yet for many years, any attempt at local management of fisheries, which would have given west-coast communities the power to exclude the trawler barons, were resisted under the pretence of there being a single entity called “the Scottish fishing industry”. It is inconceivable this would be the case if the islands had greater political autonomy.

The renewable energy debate has been bedeviled by the pretence that there is a generic Scottish interest in the issue of transmission charges and the cost of sending power to the main markets in England. I doubt if a single mainland project has been abandoned for this reason – the specific problem has always been how to fund islands generation.

Years were wasted on trying to fit this into the political straitjacket of being a “Scotland v England” issue with the prime political objective apportioning blame to “Whitehall”. It was nothing of the sort – and if the three island groups had been able to negotiate on their own behalf I have no doubt the log jam would have been broken long ago.

When ambushed in Shetland over the ambitions of the three islands councils, Alex Salmond replied: “We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future – the essence of self-determination. It follows that any government committed to that policy should listen to the views expressed around all of Scotland …” It does not need much examination to confirm that these words are crafted in order to be meaningless.

There is no logical connection between the incessant building-up of a power centre in Edinburgh and the devolution of powers to the most appropriate local level. On the contrary, we are observing a constant accretion of powers and decision-making away from the periphery, towards Edinburgh, under centralised political control.

On the day these words were said in Shetland, something very different was happening in the Sound of Barra. In the teeth of local, democratic opposition, a Mr Wheelhouse from the Borders who is the minister for much that happens in the west Highlands and Islands, designated a vast area of sea as a Marine Conservation Area.At the same time, huge swathes of the west Highlands and Islands are being designated by a Scottish Government quango, Scottish Natural Heritage, as “wild lands” in which “modern, visible human structures” will be taboo. This is already the basis for objections to economic development. Yet who has done more over the years to protect their own environment than those who wish to live there?

Why should the Western Isles not have control over environmental designations, fisheries management, renewable energy, seabed rights – all backed up by community ownership of land and natural resources. Aiming for that outcome sounds to me like real politics – and the great thing is that it should have absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish independence debate. The powers to grant or deny it already reside in Edinburgh.