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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.