Choosing your neighbours

Malachy feels the loss at the departure of a family from Fair Isle and looks ahead to the selection

This week our next-door neighbours left Fair Isle. After more than ten years on the island they have decided to make a new start elsewhere.

Departures like this affect everybody to some degree. People lose friends, colleagues and, in this case, the school has lost two of its pupils.

The past couple of years have seen some fairly major comings and going on the island, with several individuals and families choosing to leave, and others arriving to take their place. In total, 16 new people have moved to Fair Isle since the summer of 2005 – the most recent arrivals moved into a flat in the South Lighthouse only a few weeks ago – which, in a population of just over 70, is a pretty significant number.

Next-door has already been advertised to let in the Fair Isle Times (yes, we have our own weekly paper) and may be advertised more widely if necessary. The house, like the vast majority of properties on the island, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and potential residents will go through a fairly unusual application process to decide on the successful candidate.

Although the decision rests ultimately with the National Trust, a group of five elected islanders, known as the Housing Forum, meet to discuss all applications, and to assess the suitability of each applicant. The forum then makes their recommendation to the trust.

The process for selecting new residents has attracted considerable attention in the past; even leading Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, to suggest basing a “reality TV” series on it. Needless to say, the suggestion was rejected.

Those with a connection to the island, particularly a family connection, are generally given high priority. People with skills that are needed on the isle, or those can carry out available jobs, are preferred, and families are usually favoured over individuals. If a croft is connected to the property, as it is in this case, then agricultural experience would be a definite advantage. Applicants are sometimes also asked to provide a business plan, to show how they intend to make a living and to demonstrate that they have a realistic understanding of what life on a remote island involves.

This selection process, which is invariably described by the press as a “competition”, has been criticised in the past as being a form of “social engineering”, and, in a sense, that is exactly what it is. But the necessity of such a system is obvious.

In other places, where houses are sold to the highest bidder, young people from the area often cannot afford to stay. Because of this, essential skills are lost and families are separated. At that stage, a community is well on the way to being destroyed.

One of the reasons, perhaps the most significant reason, Fair Isle has managed to sustain its community so successfully, is this issue of housing. Were houses to become available for sale, the island would quickly fill up with holiday homes and rich retirees. And that would be the end of everything that makes this place special.

So, for the moment, until new tenants can be found, my girlfriend and I will be croft-sitting. That means taking care of a muddy field full of miserable-looking sheep, only a month away from lambing, plus one grumpy ram, a handful of year-old lambs, and a dozen hens. I suspect we’ll soon be begging the Housing Forum to hurry up and make a decision. Or, you never know, perhaps we’ll want a croft of our own.

Which reminds me: I must go and feed the chickens.

Photograph: David Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Rex Features
Show Hide image

Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage