Gloom as winter approaches

Malachy reflects on the speedy passing of summer and reveals how foot and mouth in Surrey has affect

The year is advancing with impetuous haste and a blatant disregard for those of us who are willing it to slow down.

Summer seems hardly to have begun and yet already the calendar shows August is largely gone. The hills are glowing purple with heather, the days are growing noticeably shorter, and the vegetables from the garden are now beginning to fill our plates.

The passing of time is something I have come to notice more since moving to Fair Isle. Each season has its jobs, each month its many tasks, and everywhere you look there are reminders of the year’s progress. Most of the silage fields are now cut and cleared of grass, with the last few soon to be done; and the lambs, now fat and heavy, are almost knocking their mothers over as they dive beneath them for milk. There is undoubtedly an autumnal feel to the days.

Traditionally, this was the beginning of the most important and joyous part of the crofting year. Crops would be harvested, vegetables gathered and animals killed, all ready for the coming winter. All the year’s work leads towards this climax.

Somehow though there is sadness too with the approach of autumn, and the knowledge of winter just around the corner. Summers here can be so short, and the dark, cold months seem unbearably long when viewed from ahead.

In part this may be because autumn no longer means as much as it once did; it is no longer vital to survival in the way it once was. Few crops are now grown here, and though many people do grow vegetables, their success is not crucial. Everything you need can be bought in the shop, so the pressure to succeed is not so great, and the joy and relief in doing so is likewise lessened.

Or perhaps it is just me, blinded by post-holiday gloom. Perhaps things will seem brighter again in a day or two. Once the rain stops.

There is a gloomy uncertainty though amongst crofters and farmers this year for another reason. The situation regarding livestock movements, following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Surrey, is a potentially critical one for anyone involved in agriculture.

Although Shetland, along with the other Scottish islands, was given early exemption from the ban on moving livestock (though this came too late for the main agricultural shows, which were forced to go ahead without animals) export of lamb and cattle is still prohibited.

This is of particular worry right now to Fair Isle crofters. Because shipping lambs from the island to mainland Shetland requires calm weather, ours are always among the first to be sold, after which they are usually shipped to Scotland to be fattened up before slaughter. If the export ban is still in place in a few weeks’ time, when our lambs should be going out to the market, it could potentially prove very difficult to get rid of them. No one is entirely sure what the solution will be, but even if the ban is lifted (which fortunately seems increasingly likely as each day passes) it is almost certain that the foot and mouth outbreak will push down the price of lamb once again this year. Given how little crofters earn from lamb already, this is exactly what they do not need.

The obsession in this country with making food as cheap as possible has been entirely at the expense of the independent food producers. Most people have no concept of the hard work that goes into rearing the meat that they eat. A situation like this can only serve to make things even harder.

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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.