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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.