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29 November 1999

Ministers stumble over Unst cuts

New Statesman Scotland - Tom Morton witnesses an official delegation to explain the closure

By Tom Morton

Black coats. Long, warm, black coats, anti-Foot coats, the charms worn by Labour leading lights against the Curse of the Cenotaph. The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Minister clearly states that parkas are not permitted public attire, and the job lot of ministerial Crombies distributed by Labour has seen sterling service.

Alasdair Morrison, the Mound’s minister for the Highlands and Islands, looks like his coat is indeed a native Crombie; but that of the Scottish Office number two, Brian Wilson, veers towards something more stylish. Armani? M&S? I spy no labels.

Mysteriously, neither coat flaps in the sullen, blustery Shetland wind. Perhaps politicians, like female royals with their dress hems, have them weighted down to avoid unsightly on-camera eruptions of cloth. And there are cameras here to cover their visit to Unst, from Grampian TV and the BBC’s Gaelic current affairs programme Eorpa, doubling up with the Welsh language programme called, co-incidentally, Europa. Which doesn’t sound like Welsh. Anyway, microphones sprout from outstretched hands, notebooks shoogle in the breeze, half-forgotten shorthand ink marks run in the rain. Everyone waits to hear what the ministers have to say about the imminent departure of the RAF from its northern fastness.

“It’s a glorified photo-opportunity – a cosmetic exercise!” spits the Community Council chairman Sandy Macaulay. He is infuriated by a pre-visit press release from Wilson which claimed only 27 jobs would be lost in the recently confirmed rundown of RAF Saxa Vord, the mainstay of the island economy. Official figures predict that total manpower at the base will fall from 193 to just 48 by 2001. Unst is set to lose a third of its population and half its civilian jobs. Economic disaster stares it in the face, and there are high hopes that the ministers will announce the availability of loadsamoney to magically sort things out.

But “we’re here to listen”, says Wilson, unflappable as his coat, munching several pork pies, though not at once, in one of the 60 infamous £250,000 houses, recently completed, that the RAF are now set to abandon. Morrison, who prefers the Baltasound Bakery’s wheaten rolls, agrees. The bottom line, though, from the word “lunch”, is that the ring-fenced four million quid demanded by locals, at the whispering behest of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) and the local enterprise company, will not be forthcoming.

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It’s fascinating to watch the development of the ministers’ tactics as the visit progresses. Aided by just one civil servant, they adjust their approach, but not their basic position. Nope, no cash up front. But bring us your projects, your ideas, every one will be considered on its merits. Don’t limit yourselves, says Wilson. You go for four million, it’s refused, everyone looks bad. Truth is, you’ll get far more if you take it one development initiative at a time . . .

The areas of responsibility represented are spelt out, too. The Moundistas have no remit for things military, so it’s Wilson who can say that the future of the MoD properties on Unst is something he can and will take a definite interest in. Morrison, on the other hand, can announce that Highlands and Islands Enterprise will second a member of staff from outside Shetland to Unst, easing the burden on the poor old local enterprise company and providing a one-stop point of contact for prospective investors and developers.

Off to RAF Saxa Vord itself the deputation goes, SIC officials and the local Lib Dem MSP, Tavish Scott, accompanying. Suddenly, the base has become remarkably security-conscious, with press banned from entry to what is normally just another public road in Unst. A private meeting with the response team set up to deal with the run-down – the MoD, in horrible PR-speak, calls it a “drawdown” – exposes the ministers’ rhetoric to some local firepower. Typically in such remote locations, it doesn’t do to underestimate whom you’re dealing with. Macaulay, for instance, is a development expert with recent worldwide experience in running major aid programmes for countries such as Kampuchea.

Around 5pm, the ministers arrive at the Unst Telecroft, a successful hi-tech initiative, for the opening of a video-conferencing suite. It’s a tricky situation to handle without seeming bored or being patronising, as faces pop up on screen from other island outposts. Wilson has done this kind of thing a million times before, though, and Morrison is controlled, articulate and appears genuinely interested. Where has the former wild man of Highland radio journalism gone, I muse. Must be the coat.

Next, the crunch: a public meeting in the village of Haroldswick. It’s almost impossible to park within walking distance of the hall, as nearly half the island’s 600-strong population has turned up. The platform party alone numbers 18, including head honchos from three different MoD branches. Coats off, the ministers march on stage. This is what they’re paid for, I think. Impress this lot, whydoncha?

Morrison does well, but trips up a bit over comparison with his native island of Uist, where rocket range specialist jobs have been “civilianised”. One of the audience wants details of how this would work in Unst, and it clearly won’t. Later I discover that Morrison has been fretting slightly about the possibilities of mixing up the words “Unst cuts” with . . . something else. But he doesn’t.

It’s Wilson who defuses any bitterness or aggression in the hall with a speech that distils the lessons of the day into an amalgam of charm, humour and bluntness. Steeped in island ways, married to a Hebridean who once worked in Shetland, he is in absolute control. No cash up front. He’s from Dunoon, where the Americans pulled out with hardly any notice and no compensation. A joke about the Tories campaigning ineptly in the Western Isles. Enthusiasm for Unst, the openness of the government to any individual ideas brought to them. And a more than heavy hint that the oil-rich Shetland Islands Council should get the finger out and help Unst itself, both by decentralising services and opening up the purse strings. It’s effective.

A huge meal follows, with local produce served to the ministers and, indeed, anyone who wants to stay. The council decides to pay for free drink for the entire night; this means free drink for the entire island, for the entire night. Soon, a band is on stage, and Wilson is leading off a Canadian barn dance. “Brian does the dancing,” says Morrison, just before he too is hustled on to the floor.

Later, Mark Ritch, a local councillor, says the visit has been valuable. “Maybe we were a bit naive,” he says, “expecting them just to give us cash up front.” Sandy Macaulay is happily playing guitar on stage as the ministers dance and talk over local Valhalla ales. Everyone is impressed. Everyone is charmed. The ministers have come and they have listened. And they can dance, too.

The local hotel is full, so Wilson and Morrison have been billeted in a B&B. Long before the party ends, they quietly say goodnight, and head off into the icy northern night, mission accomplished, their coats buttoned securely against the chill.

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