Keeping in touch

Disconnection exists everywhere - whether you live in a big city or on a remote island

Being on an island can induce, in some people, a feeling of disconnectedness – disconnection from friends and family elsewhere, from the comforts and trappings of commerce, and from the news and events of the 'real' world.

For some, that is exactly what they are looking for. People come to visit places like Fair Isle in order to 'get away from it all' – to escape the confinement of modern society and to experience the freedom of another way of life.

But for others, the feeling can be uncomfortable and alienating. Freedom and constraint both coexist here, as they do everywhere. And islands are, by their very nature, separate.

But connection is a strange thing.

These days people are connected, for the most part, through the media. We read about each other in the newspaper and we watch each other on the television. On the internet we can do both.

Although I don’t have a television (through choice rather than necessity), I do get a newspaper, though only once a week (through necessity rather than choice). My Saturday Guardian arrives, if the weather is fine, on a Tuesday. By which time the world has moved on without me.

It can be easy to feel as though that world is a long way away. I have, more than once, failed to notice a major news story. It is a shock to turn on the radio and find out that you are the last person in the country to be aware of some major event, days after it happened.

I trust though that, were something really important or dreadful to happen (like nuclear war, say, or the Conservatives winning an election), someone would mention it to me before it was too late.

But I rarely miss the newspapers. And I certainly never miss the television. And, as I said, connection is a strange thing.

The mediation which now permeates every aspect of most people’s lives disguises itself as connection. We can, if we wish, find out much about our colleagues and neighbours by looking them up on Google. We can learn everything we want to know about politicians and celebrities in our newspapers and magazines. We feel somehow close to these people, no matter that they are strangers.

But it is all, of course, an illusion. We are separated from the world, not connected, by the media. And by focusing all of our attention on that which is far away, we become yet more distant from the things which should be close to us.

People sometimes ask whether it is difficult to live in a place with just 70 people. Is it not claustrophobic? Are we not all fed up of each other? But think about it: how many people do you really connect with in a normal day? Half a dozen, perhaps? One or two even?

What about the man who sells you your milk in the corner shop? Or the woman sitting beside you on the train? Your colleagues in the office? Or the waiter in the restaurant? What kinds of connections are those?

Here, every connection is a real one. Though there are only 70 of us, we are all connected through a mutual reliance and a shared sense of... well, of what exactly? To be honest, I am not sure. A shared sense of being on an island, perhaps.

I have lived most of my life in a small town. But I have also lived, at various times, in three different cities in three different countries. Disconnection exists everywhere. And connection is a strange thing.

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'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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