On the margins

Most Scots live in the narrow corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow, yet their country's identity s

Scotland the Brand has its easily identifiable markers: Balmoral, kilts, whisky and four-legged haggises. Scotland the Ridiculous has Billy Connolly and the Tartan Army. And Scotland the Political has the Barnett Formula, devised by the UK Treasury to ensure a fair allocation of public funds to the mysterious creatures north of the border, and seen by English taxpayers as a device for bleeding England dry.

But what of Scotland the Reality? The vast majority of Scots live in the narrow, 50-mile east-west corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The world knows it well. It is the world of endemic sectarianism, Taggart, Trainspotting, grim housing estates, heart attacks and, almost incidentally, some of Britain's most renowned universities, medical schools and art galleries.

The Highlands, by contrast, are home to a tiny fraction of the population. Yet they contain a huge proportion of Scotland's land mass. On the two-hour journey from Perth to Inverness, the road skirts a chain of small towns to its east, but to the west lie only thousands of acres of hostile mountain and barren moorland. North of Inverness, the vast interiors of Caithness, Ross and Sutherland are virtually uninhabited. Mere fragments of the native population remain, as rare as the remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Their ancient Gaelic language is lost, but the memory of past injustices still lingers.

Here, landowners are hated and poachers venerated, and crofters have jumped at the chance to arrange community buyouts of their native soil. The crofters of Assynt in north-west Sutherland set the precedent by buying out the loathed Vesteys.The people of the island of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides followed suit; and now crofter buyouts are flavour of the month. The days of Highland fiefdoms owned by City millionaires and reclusive pop stars are numbered. The land is going back to the people.

In the Highlands, distance renders prohibitive the cost of providing health clinics, ambulances and even GPs. Indeed, such is the cost of providing out-of-hours medical care that one Highland doctor is reputed to be the best-paid in Britain. The figure quoted is £300,000 a year: an exaggeration, no doubt, but denials are carefully worded.

In the Highlands, thousands of miles of road have to be maintained, under the most ferocious weather conditions, by a tiny number of council-tax payers. One redoubtable inhabitant of Raasay, an island adjacent to Skye, lobbied his local council for years asking for a road to his isolated hamlet. He eventually gave up, and started building the road himself. It was two miles long and 12 feet wide, up a steep, bouldered hillside, and he had only a succession of wheelbarrows (replaced as each one wore out), a sledgehammer, a shovel and a crowbar. It took him 20 years (1964-84), and the epic task was immortalised in a splendid book, Roger Hutchinson's Calum's Road.

This is the area, too, where the whole eco-nomy hinges on tourism. Once, hospitality to strangers was a sacred duty. Now, necessity has made it a commercial exercise. Crofts become caravan sites and homes become bed-and-breakfast establishments. The season is short, and at the mercy of the weather, the exchange rate and suicide bombers - and, while it lasts, the temptation to fill every vacant space with a lettable bed is well nigh irresistible.

On the margins of this Highland extremity lies another, even more extreme: the Western Isles. They have a population of 35,000 in total, and form a parliamentary constituency in their own right. Most Scots have never seen them. Fewer still understand them. This explains such stories as the one about the man from the north-west mainland who phoned NHS 24 (Scotland's NHS Direct) and was told to go to the A&E department of Lewis Hospital, a mere 30 miles away. NHS 24 didn't seem to know that this was 30 miles as the crow flies, and that even if he were a crow he would still have to fly over raging seas.

Electorally, this is one of Scotland's most marginal constituencies. The Tories have no support, apart from one of my sons, though it helps that their candidate is a local man able to chat up the cailleachs (Gaelic for venerable old ladies). There was such a Tory candidate once, in the Thatcher years, who had a fair old chat-up with one such voter. When he eventually rose to go. he said, "I'll be having your vote, then." "Yes, dear," said the cailleach warmly, "anything to get that woman out!" Her assumption had been that such a nice man couldn't possibly represent the Iron Lady.

In this constituency, language matters. It is the only one in the world where Gaelic is still a living tongue, and both the MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and the local MSP, Alasdair Morrison, are former stars of the Gaelic media. The SNP's candidate for the Scottish Parliament, Alasdair Allan, made history by being the first student ever to submit his PhD thesis in Gaelic. The one certainty in this election is that the successful candidate, whoever he is, will be sending his children to a Gaelic-medium school.

And here religion matters. The southern isles in the Hebridean chain are Catholic, the northern ones Presbyterian, but relations between them have never been marred by sectarian bigotry. On the other hand, neither group has been much impressed by Labour's record on so-called ethical issues. The islands will still not provide facilities for gay marriages and, in the current stand-off between Catholic adoption agencies and the government, Catholics and Protestants alike are backing the Church.

But religion will not be a key issue. This is a sophisticated electorate, its passions fuelled by incessant public debate. The issue currently dividing the community is the proposal to pepper the moors of Lewis with Europe's hugest windfarms. The opposition has formed itself into a powerful lobby group, Mointeach gun Mhuilinn ("Moorlands Without Turbines"), and there have been accusations of strong-arm tactics and intimidation. When one islander admitted his support for windfarms, the response was: "I'm glad to hear it. I'm for them, too, but I've been frightened to say it." A petition organised by Moorlands Without Turbines received 5,000 signatures; when Lewis Wind Power recently submitted a planning application for 181 turbines, there were 3,500 objections; and when the application was granted, the distinguished local broadsheet, the Stornoway Gazette, carried a whole page of letters, almost all of them anti.

Paradox of Union

One of the prevailing fears is the visual impact of these monsters, if situated close to villages. The obvious place for them would be the thousands of acres of uninhabitable peaty wilderness at the heart of the island, but there, it is said, the risk to birds is too great. As ever in the Highlands, we shall inconvenience the people instead.

For decades, the Western Isles was solidly Labour, the only rural constituency in Britain to show this trend. The socialist vote reflected the links between the islands and Glasgow, where Isles men worked in the shipyards and learned their politics from Red Clydesiders in the tradition of Keir Hardie, James Maxton and Emman uel Shinwell. Labour was the party of the poor.

It was also the party of the Union, and though the islands now teeter on the brink of separatism, this would have been unthinkable in the 1940s and 1950s. Decades of association with the Royal Navy, in peace and war, had bred a strong sense of Britishness. In fact, on the outbreak of the Second World War, a written answer in the House of Commons showed that one-quarter of Britain's naval reservists came from the Western Isles.

All this bred a lifelong pride in the British navy and a sense of Britishness that survived not only the Second World War, but also the fact that the casualty rate in the Western Isles was the highest in the country. Patriotism still flourished in the 1950s. I well remember one veteran expressing dismay at the weakness of the British response to some provocation from President Abdel Nasser. "And, of course," he said in disgust, "Britain sends a protest!" The man wanted to send a battleship. Few young islanders today could even begin to understand such a sentiment.

It is part of the paradox of the Union that the most neglected region in Scotland is the one closest to England: the Borders. Here is a farming community still traumatised by the most recent foot-and-mouth epidemic; and, in the midst of it, countless Edinburgh-dependent suburbs without a rail link to the capital.

How is this discontent manifesting itself? The odd thing is that it isn't. The Highlands have been eloquent advocates in their own cause, mobilising poets, novelists, journalists, dramatists and politicians to articulate their grievances. That's why the whole world knows about the Highland Clearances, Culloden and Glencoe. And that's why we've had the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Crofters Commission, the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee, the Gaelic Books Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and even, for a time, a minister for the Highlands.

The Borders have had no such political structures. They've had their own clearances, their own land shortages and their own forced emigrations, but their discontent has found only a muted voice. They were once as famed for their minstrels as they were feared for their marauders, but the music has died on their lips. It probably died through loss of hope. The UK, including the rest of Scotland, feels guilty about the Highlands. It doesn't feel guilty about the Borders.

In the forthcoming election, the big battalions will be those of the central belt and of Scotland's media village. But Highlanders, Islanders and Borderers may hold the balance of power.

The author is is professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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