Britain's most northerly man and otter stories

Malachy reflects on the vulnerability of rural communities during a visit to Unst and meets some of

I am currently in Unst, Britain’s most northerly island, proud home to Britain’s most northerly shop, house, church, chocolate factory, brewery and person (which, at some point this weekend, was quite possibly me). The island has also been home, since January, to my brother, Rory.

Reaching Unst is something of a trek. From Lerwick it is nearly an hour’s drive, then a 15-minute ferry journey to the island of Yell, a further 20-minute drive across Yell, and a final, 10-minute ferry ride to Unst. Beyond this island there is nothing except water – a lot of water – and then ice. The Arctic Circle is only about 400 miles north of here, not much more than the distance from London to Glasgow.

Unst, like most of Shetland’s outer islands, and indeed like rural areas all over Britain, has suffered from depopulation and a lack of employment opportunities over recent decades. In Shetland, as elsewhere, people tend to gravitate towards the largest centres of population – in our case, Lerwick – and this inevitably makes it difficult to retain employment, and to attract new people to live and work in more remote areas.

Here though the problem has been made even more severe by the recent closure of the RAF base, Saxaford, and the subsequent loss of jobs and families from the island. Although the closure was carried out in a gradual process over a number of years, the change has been dramatic all the same. In the last decade the population has decreased from around 700 to 500 people – a serious dent by any standard.

Rural communities are vulnerable to any changes in population and employment, and they can feel seriously threatened when problems occur. Much thought has gone in to finding a sustainable way forward for Unst, and the desire to create opportunities for young people and newcomers is paramount. Here, as in other remote parts of Shetland, many people are looking to tourism to provide the answers, and certainly a healthy supply of visitors is important for any area. But I am not convinced that the tourist industry, fickle as it can be, is where the solution should be sought. A community must first serve itself before it should begin to serve others.

* * *

Rory and I spent most of Saturday driving through Unst and Yell in the rain with no particular place to go. We had rather optimistically taken fishing rods with us, though the weather didn’t look too promising. I had also been hoping to see an otter or two while I was here. They are relatively common in the North Isles, although, as we stopped to look out at one empty shoreline after another, Rory was quick to explain that “You never see them when you’re looking for them”.

As evening approached we headed back towards his house in the north of the island. The rain had eased considerably by then and we decided to take the rods and try a few casts from the beach beside the house. Rory had caught a good sea trout here the day before I arrived, so we were fairly hopeful of our chances.

Down at the beach, we had hardly begun to fish when out of the water appeared a pair of otters, just 100 yards to our right. Entirely unbothered by our presence the pair lollopped slowly up the sand, pausing here and there to examine items of interest along the way. We watched until they disappeared into the grass above the beach, and then returned to our fishing, as the light rain became a steady downpour.

Postscript: Sunday 4th March
Driving back to the ferry this morning in wonderful sunshine, we passed a family of otters swimming in the sea beside the road. As we watched, the mother came out of the water and up onto the road in front of us. She looked over at us for a moment and then, perhaps hearing the cries of her cubs, retreated to the sea again.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.