Malachy on tour

How escaping from island life can remind you of the benefits

I am sitting in a hotel room. The walls are a sickly, bright yellow, and the quilt cover is a peculiar tartanesque pattern, identical to the curtains. Outside my window is a large car-park; beyond that, a housing estate.

I am in Glenrothes, three nights in to a four night musical tour of Scotland. We began in Aberdeen on Thursday, and will end, on Sunday evening, in Edinburgh. This is the first time I have found myself 'on tour', and it is a fairly strange experience: long days with not much to do are punctuated by moments of stress and nerves, and then the concerts happen, and are over in an instant. They are followed, inevitably, by a sigh of relief, usually lasting several hours.

My friend Steven and I have spent the days driving around, visiting places both new and familiar. It has been good to see, albeit briefly, parts of the country that we had previously only heard of – Loch Leven, Gleneagles, Auchtermuchty – and the weather has been, for the most part, beautiful. Spring has definitely arrived here in the south: daffodils lined the road in some of the villages we passed through, and there is a definite freshness to the green in the fields and hills.

But travelling also leads thoughts back towards home. It is slightly depressing to remember that when I arrive back in Shetland on Tuesday morning, after the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, the world will not look nearly so green, and the sun won't be nearly so willing to shine.

Many people living in Shetland (and, I suppose, other remote islands) feel the need to escape once in a while – to be in a bigger place, with more people, and to feel less detached from the rest of the world. They take shopping trips to Aberdeen or Glasgow, or weekend breaks to Edinburgh or London: places where the world looks and feels different from at home.

A sense of claustrophobia can develop when living on an island – a feeling of restricted movement, which can grow into a more complex sense of being held back or restrained. Some people find it difficult to cope with. But an occasional journey to mainland Britain, or further afield, can help to alleviate that feeling.

There are restrictions on the mainland too, of course. Whereas in Shetland, the views stretch out across the sea to the horizon, here you are hemmed in by trees and buildings. Cities in particular can feel very constricting and claustrophobic, as well as being noisy, dirty and intensely alienating. For someone used to life on an island, city dwellers can seem like very unnatural creatures indeed.

And perhaps that is the reason for these journeys away from home; it is not the escape from the limits of the island that is important, it is the reminder of why you live there in the first place. One person's freedom is another's prison, and sometimes it takes a change of view to remember which side of the wall you are actually on. For me, freedom lies back at home, with the horizon all around, and I will be heaving one final sigh of relief on Monday evening, as the ferry leaves Aberdeen harbour, heading north to Shetland.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.