Farewell from Fair Isle

Malachy Tallack's last blog from Britain's remotest place reflects on a very different way of living


When I began writing these short pieces for the New Statesman a year ago, I was reacting in part to what I felt were misrepresentations and misunderstandings of life in the Northern Isles that were appearing with some regularity in the national media.

The islands, and Fair Isle in particular, were portrayed as somehow old fashioned – relics of an era long since forgotten elsewhere. The people who lived here were too often caricatured as naïve and idealistic, backward-looking, or, worse, as mere museum pieces, existing solely for the entertainment of our visitors.

I wanted to write an alternative story; one that did not treat island life as an eccentric curiosity, or as a polar opposite to the ‘normal life’ that is lived elsewhere. I wanted to write about the realities of living here – the problems as well as the pleasures – and to do this without adding too much of a romantic sheen. I also wanted to ask myself what exactly it is that makes places like Fair Isle different, and specifically what it is about this particular community that visitors and islanders find so refreshing and worthwhile. On this last point I am quite sure that I have not succeeded, but I wanted to offer here a few final thoughts.

There is a common misconception about Fair Isle’s community, which I think is perpetuated by the tendency to consider it as being a cohesive unit, rather than a nebulous group of individuals. Fair Isle is not a community that is sustained by any kind of heady idealism, or by a desire for ‘like-minded’ communal living. It is a community of individuals, often with very different opinions and ideas, who simply choose to consider their neighbours’ interests as well as their own.

We do this, I think, for two reasons, both of which involve a recognition of something that can elsewhere remain hidden. Firstly, there is the recognition that each person has some sort of role, no matter how ill-defined, within the community. Many of us have jobs that are needed for the maintenance of essential services; others may simply offer a different way of looking at things. But each of us relies, quite literally, upon a network of other people, sharing this island with us. While this fact remains true wherever you live, it is often difficult to see.

The second reason is that people here recognise that the community, as a social group, is itself worth sustaining – that there is something here to sustain. Most people feel no need to define that something, just to acknowledge it. It is related, I would suggest, to an entirely natural and instinctive desire to be part of a functioning social group. After all, that is how human beings, as social animals, have evolved. But it is a feeling that is increasingly hard to find in other places today.

The community works so long as most people, most of the time, are able to remember and accept that their own interests are not always consistent with those of their neighbours, and that everyone benefits by acting with this in mind. This seems to me to be an entirely healthy and natural social order, and one that is completely alien to the hierarchical structures of power and wealth that now binds society together throughout most of the West. It is this naturalness that I think visitors notice when they come here, even for a short time; the feeling that, somehow, this is how it is meant to be.

Anyone who travels in the remote parts of Scotland, and particularly in the Western and Northern Isles, will have come across the evidence of abandonment. Old crofts and cottages lie derelict, ruined. Whole villages and islands that once were populated are now entirely empty of people. It can be a depressing sight. This island could very easily have gone the same way. But it did not.

For me, Fair Isle is a place of great hope. People here work hard to maintain something that they truly believe in, something that they cannot find anywhere else. What they find on this island is a real community of individuals, a natural and native order of things, and a satisfaction that springs not so much from a way of life, but a way of living.

Many thanks to Dave Wheeler for all his wonderful photographs.

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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation