Disconnected thoughts

For the first time in more than three months I am writing a blog entry. I have not written before now for a few reasons: not knowing what to say at this time of pandemic; expecting anything I do say to be overtaken by events almost at once; and, to be honest, not really feeling like writing.

Kathie (Touin, Mrs Brown) and I have not exactly been shielding during the lockdown but we have certainly kept ourselves to ourselves in the main, avoiding in particular big and busy supermarkets. In fact, Kathie avoided shops altogether until venturing into some smaller premises recently.

So while Scotland is easing restrictions more slowly than England, Kathie and I are deliberately taking it more slowly still.

IMG_20200708_181936485
Roscoe our Border Collie on the Brough of Birsay (image: Graham Brown)

We have met one or two friends outside in the last few weeks; visited Happy Valley (a tree plantation), the Brough of Birsay (a tidal island) and the nearby coastline; and this week the piano tuner came to the house – our first outside worker.

We realise we are lucky to live in a rural part of Orkney, where we can get out and about to exercise with our dog without getting into crowds, where we have a little of our own land around us to enjoy sitting, weeding, mowing or just hanging out the washing.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are a few disconnected thoughts about the situation now.

Does petrol go off?

I’m joking, though I guess there might be a limit to how long it lasts before changing composition or losing efficacy? Efficacy, now there’s one of the words that has joined our regular vocabulary in this pandemic year. The reason I mention this is that my car, a red Audi, was reasonably full of fuel when the lockdown happened in March. And, as I write at the end of July, I am still using that same tank of fuel.

Remember money?

On Roscoe’s walk the other day I found a coin on the roadside. I puzzled for a few seconds as to what it was, then realised it was a 5p. I did not recognise it at first because I have handled so little money in the last four months or so.

When visiting big cities in the last year or two I was struck by how most people use contactless cards and credit cards to pay for everything. Now, with people reluctant to handle cash, the same applies to Orkney.

Since March I have spent virtually no actual cash and I have not been to a cashpoint machine. I still have £20 that was in my wallet four months ago.

But here is a potential, if minor, problem… Without spending notes in the shops and getting change how am I going to get the correct money for car parks now that the local council is charging for them again?

More seriously, as with all technology, there will be people left behind who for reasons such as age or poverty do not have access to bank accounts, credit cards and contactless cards.

IMG_20200717_134353349
Kathie and friend walking in Orkney’s Happy Valley (image: Graham Brown)

Is the lockdown saving the environment?

The decrease in traffic and travel has helped our environment but I am not as optimistic about this as I was earlier in the year. I fear our governments will rush back to the old ways to try to get economies moving quickly.

And what about plastic waste? When hair salons re-opened a local hairdresser was interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney. She estimated she would be using more than 700 pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) a week. I do not blame her, she has a business to run, but creating all this is not great for the environment.

And, as always, a few people are careless so there are already reports of discarded PPE washing up on beaches. BBC News reported that a peregrine falcon had been photographed with its talons caught in a facemask – a possible death sentence for the bird (see below).

Kathie and I, like everyone, have been wearing facemasks for our occasional shop visits. We have been able to buy washable ones and mine has dinosaurs on it (inside every grown man is a ten-year-old child trying to get out).

Like many people I find the mask a bit awkward with my specs but I have noticed something strange which seems to have crept up on me during lockdown. I wear my glasses for long-distance but now I find I can see nearly as well without them as with them – so, I wear my glasses to drive to the shop, then swap them for my facemask after I have parked the car.

When the local optician is open again for non-emergency appointments I will have to see them to find out what is going on. Barnard Castle is a bit far from here for an afternoon drive.

What about Orkney’s economy?

A large part of Orkney’s income, and many of its businesses and jobs, rely on tourism. One survey (see below) predicted that at worst there could be 3,000 jobs lost in Orkney (population approx 22,000) and the amount of money flowing through the economy halved.

Now that lockdown is easing we are seeing more visitors about the place which is great for struggling businesses but does make many of us feel a bit nervous of another outbreak.

A number of people here in Orkney favour the Isle of Man’s approach of closing the border (see two stories below) and thus allowing residents more open use of shops, cafes, restaurants and facilities – though I guess this would not help holiday accommodation providers.

But, even if this was agreed locally to be the right move to make, Orkney Islands Council does not have the same powers as the Manx Government.

I think for most people an even bigger worry is cruise ships. Orkney is a popular destination – more than 150 cruise ship visits in 2019 – but this year apart from one or two in early March we have not seen any. It seems unlikely there will be any calling for the rest of this year though if plans are announced for any visits I suspect there will be an uproar locally.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

As this year goes on more and more dates pass in my diary for events that would have been. The first week of August would have been agricultural show week in Orkney with our local event, the West Mainland or Dounby Show on Thursday 6th – it’s a great social occasion and we will miss it.

But without these events – and TV sporting tournaments such as Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Euro 2020 football – we have been able to spend more time outside in the garden.

IMG_20200720_134146641
California poppies enjoying the Orkney sunshine outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

There is still much to do but we have made more progress this year than in the past.

And there has been more space to appreciate the smaller things, like the caterpillars, and the butterflies, as well as the birds. Incidentally, the swallows have fledged three or four young from their nest in our garage and now have a second brood in another garage nest on the way.

We have been helped in our outside work by generally favourable, even, whisper it, warm, weather. That is, until this week when one day in particular had heavy rain, dark skies and strong winds as if it was November.

Every time we step outside the front door we are greeted by a flock of birds who know we are an easy touch for food. Earlier in the lockdown it was starlings and sparrows, now the starlings are mostly gathering elsewhere and it is nearly all sparrows – plus the occasional lesser black-backed gull.

This and that

  • Kathie and I decided that we should start to catch up with our many DVDs so, once a week, we have a DVD evening. We started with an 11-part 1984 German TV drama called Heimat, written and directed by Edgar Reitz in an intriguing mixture of colour and black-and-white, and originally shown in the UK on BBC Two. It tells the story of a village from 1919 to 1982 and remains one of my favourite TV dramas of all time. If you get a chance please watch it. (NB: there is also a sequel and a prequel which I have yet to see).
  • We spent time clearing out the house. To be honest, there is still much to do. But we have got piles of stuff for the charity shops and, when I get motivated, for eBay. The charity shops are starting to come back to life here in Orkney and we have donated one bag of clothes. Meanwhile, it’s as well we can’t have visitors as the guest room is a bit crowded with more stuff on its way out.
  • If you live outside Orkney you might not have spotted that we had a flying visit from the Prime Minister on 23 July. His visit to Scotland was, partly, in reaction to an increase in support for Scottish independence. Despite his itinerary, and even the fact of his visit, being kept under wraps “for security reasons” there were some protesters who had discovered his plans through social media.
  • Two concerts Kathie and I were due to attend in May – Gretchen Peters in Glasgow, Rumer in Edinburgh – have been postponed to February and March respectively. Right now I am not sure whether they will go ahead even then and, if they do, whether Kathie and I will feel confident about going. I hope we can. But I expect the artists, not to mention their support staff and the theatres concerned, are also worried.

Meanwhile, Kathie and I are not planning to go anywhere outside Orkney anytime soon. I hope that, wherever you are, you are staying safe and healthy.

Graham Brown

To find out more

BBC News: Peregrine falcon talons tangled in discarded face mask…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-53530961

The Orcadian: Orkney businesses fear ‘massive crash’ in local economy…
https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkney-businesses-fear-massive-crash-in-local-economy/

BBC News: Coronavirus: Isle of Man border reopens to residents…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-53450577

BBC News: Passengers ‘excited’ to travel on Isle of Man-Guernsey air bridge route…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-53501183

And to find out more about Orkney…
https://www.orkney.com/

Ten years in Orkney – now what?

Ten years ago Kathie and I moved to Orkney. By coincidence we arrived on 16 April which is St Magnus Day – he is the patron saint of Orkney.

And so each year we go to St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, not far from where we live, for the annual St Magnus service which also serves for us as a marker in our personal journey. But not this year.

Nothing much changed in our first ten years in Orkney and then, last month – everything changed for everyone in Orkney and beyond. Well, yes and no.

If I spend a little time reflecting I realise we have experienced more change since April 2010 than I imagined at first. Most of the change has been gradual, making it harder to notice, with an occasional sudden, often bad, impact.

IMG_20200416_094355110_HDR
View from our house on St Magnus Day 2020 (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoy a wonderful view from the front of our house across the landscape of Orkney’s West Mainland – and now there are a few extra buildings in the view; our “field” (it’s an enclosure, really) next to the house now has a stone wall all the way around it; inside our home we have decorated and improved some rooms; and we have Roscoe, our rescue Border Collie, who joined us in 2012.

Some change has been less welcome – Kathie’s musical inspiration and friend Keith Emerson died suddenly in 2016, and before his funeral was held my father also passed away unexpectedly. Last year we lost my Uncle David and here in Orkney we have mourned people we knew in our community.

On the positive side, Kathie had a major operation in 2018 which massively improved her mobility and fitness, then in late 2019 released her first album of music in ten years, Facing The Falling Sky.

We both became RSPB volunteers soon after moving to Orkney, and I have ended up as a (very) part-time member of staff. I was privileged to help mark the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, which sank in 1916 off Orkney. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council. And Kathie and I are both managers, ie committee members, at Quoyloo Old School which is our village hall.

IMG_20191008_155442345
Kathie and me during the Sound Of Music coach tour in Austria (image: Graham Brown)

In between we have enjoyed several visits to Scotland’s Central Belt, getting to know Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as visits to Orkney’s beautiful islands, to the in-laws in California and then, after they moved, to Northern Arizona. And Kathie and I spent marvellous holidays in Italy (Bologna) and Austria (Vienna and Salzburg).

All this now seems like another world, before coronavirus, or BC. Already I find myself at home saying something like “do you remember before coronavirus when …?”

Kathie has underlying health issues which mean we mostly avoid the shops. We are lucky that we can get deliveries from our excellent village shop, Isbister Brothers.

We are fortunate in a wider sense because we have my regular pension income. Kathie has managed to carry on teaching her piano students using Skype.

In some ways, for Kathie and me, and I am not making light of this crisis, life does not seem very different. We typically spend time at the house, Kathie working upstairs in her studio and me in my downstairs office. We live in the countryside so we can take Roscoe for his morning walk without meeting anyone.

But then the awfulness of this pandemic – the deaths, the sick, the brave and tired NHS and frontline workers, the closed businesses – will suddenly dawn on me, or Kathie. The radio, TV and online news, rightly, is full of Covid-19. It is important to be well-informed but we avoid watching the TV news just before bedtime to aid a better night’s sleep.

Her Majesty The Queen made a skilfully worded address to the people of the UK on Sunday 5 April, it was moving and reassuring. Later that evening we heard that the Prime Minister had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, then the next day he was moved to intensive care. It was shocking news whether you voted for him or not.

The virus is in Orkney, of course, and at the time of writing it has led to two deaths. We think of the families and friends who are grieving, and unable to hold the funeral they would wish, whatever the cause of their loved one’s passing.

There is a request show on BBC Radio Orkney each Friday evening, something of a local institution, each week for 50 minutes at 6.10pm. Since the lockdown the programme has expanded to fit in the greater number of requests being submitted, starting at 6.00pm and going on beyond 7.00pm.

And now, sadly, folk have started sending dedications to remember their relatives who have passed away – something I do not remember hearing on the programme before. In the absence of a public funeral it is a way to mark their loved one’s passing.

In comparison to the above it hardly seems to matter but like everyone our travel plans are on hold, particularly disappointing for Kathie who wants to visit her elderly parents.

Big events which many of us were looking forward to watching on TV, such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Olympics and football’s Euro 2020, will not be there.

On a local scale, our monthly village quiz finished early before its summer break. We are not alone, of course, here in Orkney, like the rest of Scotland, the UK and much of the world, everything is off.

In fact, all the markers of a typical Orkney year are gradually being cancelled, such as Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival (along with all RSPB events), the St Magnus International Festival and Stromness Shopping Week. Who knows whether the Orkney County Show and our other agricultural shows, such as the West Mainland Show near us, will go ahead?

man_dog
One of my favourite pictures: Roscoe and me on the Brough of Birsay (image: Kathie Touin)

When we finally come out of this, whenever that will be, what will be different?

How many Orkney businesses, reliant on tourism, will survive this? There were more than 150 cruise ship visits to Orkney in 2019 – will we ever see so many visiting again? Do we want to?

The environment will have enjoyed some relief from humans, will we build on that to create a greener future? Or will we turbocharge oil, aircraft and cars as we rush to rebuild economies?

What about the NHS? Will it receive greater funding? Or will people – and I’m afraid this is particularly true of some English people – go back to their old ways of wanting great public services along with low taxes. Spoiler alert: you can’t have both.

Will we look again at our UK immigration policies? Seeing the tragic losses of NHS staff it is noticeable how many have backgrounds outside the UK.

Where will Scotland and the UK be politically after this? Will Brexit still seem like a good idea, assuming anyone gets time to organise it? What about Scottish independence? What other unexpected political movements might flow from this?

It is as if the ground is shifting under us, like some giant slow-motion earthquake. The aftershocks will go on for years to come and none of us know what they will throw up and where we will all be at the end of this.

Ten years in Orkney – much has changed. For all of us.

Thank you to everyone working for us at this time, whether in the NHS, the care sector, shops, the postal service, local councils, emergency services, wherever – thank you.

Stay safe if you can.

And let’s keep an eye on the future: let’s see if we can make it better than it might have been.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Covid-19 advice from the Scottish government – https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/

More information from Orkney Islands Council – https://www.orkney.gov.uk/

Please don’t come now but you would be very welcome if you wish to visit Orkney in the future – https://www.orkney.com/

Update (17 April 2020)

A few hours after I published this blog entry it was announced that all six of Orkney’s agricultural shows have been cancelled for 2020. Here is a report from The Orcadian – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkneys-six-agricultural-shows-cancelled-for-2020/

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

Dump the EU? Be rid of nuclear weapons? Be the next Greece? Developing thoughts on Scottish independence

The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland
The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Here is a quick re-cap for new readers of this blog. I am an Englishman who moved to Orkney, off the north-east coast of mainland Scotland, in April 2010.

At present Scotland has its own parliament with many powers over domestic policy but it is still part of the UK and the Westminster parliament retains control over many matters, notably financial, defence and foreign affairs. The Scottish National Party, or SNP, currently form the Scottish government under First Minister Alex Salmond and they want full independence.

In a previous blog entry in February 2012, “We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?”, I wrote about the forthcoming referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. This is a referendum in which I, as a resident of Scotland, will get a vote.

Since I wrote that blog a deal between the UK and Scottish governments means that the referendum will probably take place in 2014, with anyone resident in Scotland over the age of 16 able to vote, and with a single yes or no question – though exactly how the question will be phrased is not yet decided.

As this debate will continue for two years it will make a US Presidential election seem like a quick business. But already some themes are emerging.

Firstly, nuclear weapons. The SNP have changed their policy ahead of the referendum. Now they want Scotland to remain part of NATO. But they have kept their opposition to nuclear weapons.

This matters because the Faslane Naval base, home to the Royal Navy’s Trident nuclear-armed submarines, is in Scotland. If we vote for an independent Scotland the UK Government will have to find a new home for this most expensive of defence systems – at least that is how the media portray the issue.

But this slightly puzzles me. Let’s for a moment say that the good people of Scotland do vote for independence. What happens next? Surely one of the first events in this newly-independent country will be an election to its newly-independent parliament. And who is to say which party, or parties, will emerge victorious?

The implication of much of the media reporting is that if we vote for independence we sail off into a Saltire sunset with the SNP at the helm. But it might not be like that.

Remember the UK General Election at the end of the Second World War. Did a grateful nation overwhelmingly vote war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill back into power? No, the voters decided the Labour Party was best placed for the peace ahead.

So, while I am not comparing Alex Salmond to Churchill, it is possible Salmond will see his dream of an independent Scotland but find others are elected to run it.

Secondly, the European Union. For some time we, the voters, were under the impression that Alex Salmond and the SNP were in possession of legal advice that an independent Scotland could remain part of the EU. Following a campaign under Freedom of Information legislation to get the government to make this advice public it now transpires this advice did not exist at all and that the SNP is only just seeking legal advice.

So where does this leave us? Might an independent Scotland automatically be part of the EU? Or perhaps not? And if an independent Scotland, as a new country, does not get a nod into the EU where does that leave the rump of the UK? Might that be considered a new country that has to apply all over again?

Those who have complained for years about the EU might get a chance to oppose Scotland, and the UK rump, from applying for membership.

Thirdly, currency. Alex Salmond and the SNP want to retain the pound in an independent Scotland. But where would this leave Scotland? Key decisions about the pound, the economy and interest rates would remain with the UK Government – currently with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, not a popular man in Scotland – and with the Bank of England.

The unhappy experience of Greece suggests that if you do not control all the financial levers yourself, and have your own currency, you are at risk of being told what to do by other governments. That doesn’t feel very independent to me.

In the end, as I said before, I think the referendum vote will run quite close but it will be a decision to remain in the UK. People will probably vote for the option they think is less risky economically, and they may well decide that means being in the UK. But much can happen in two years. Still, we’re all strapped in and enjoying the ride. Put your hands in the air and shout yeah!

To find out more

My previous blog: We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

BBC News: Scotland politics

SNP website

 

 

We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

Me in April 2010, crossing the border into Scotland
Me in April 2010, crossing the border into Scotland

The Chinese philosopher Confucius said “may you live in interesting times”. And we certainly do in Scotland. Suddenly nothing is certain, everything is up for discussion.

Actually, let’s start with Confucius. Extensive research suggests – well, I did a Google search – that the phrase is in fact a relatively modern and Western invention. So even the validity of this reliable old saying is being questioned in these uncertain times.

To recap for new readers of my blog, I am English by birth and now resident in Orkney. Not familiar with Orkney? It is a group of islands off the north-east coast of Scotland which is part of Scotland, and part of the United Kingdom.

And, in case you have missed it, Scotland will vote in a referendum in the next couple of years on whether to become an independent country, separate to the UK. Because I’m resident in Scotland I will get a vote in this referendum.

These are exciting times. How often do you get to vote on whether the place you live should become a new independent country? Well, strictly, not new, as Scotland was independent before 1707.

It raises all sorts of questions. What about the head of state? Well, that’s quite an easy one. The proposal, if Scotland became independent, is to keep Her Majesty The Queen as head of state, assuming she will have us.

But what about the currency? What about the army? What about my taxes? What about the economy? And there’s more, as we shall see.

First, some background for those who do not live in the UK, such as my in-laws in California. Scotland already has a parliament. It was established in 1999 and it has powers over much domestic policy including health, education and justice.

In the most recent parliamentary election, in 2011, the SNP – or Scottish National Party – gained an overall majority of seats. This was unexpected because the Scottish Parliament was deliberately set up in such a way that no one party was likely to gain overall control.

And, as you will guess from its name, the SNP’s main wish is for an independent Scotland. Hence the referendum on independence, expected in 2014.

Now you might think they are likely to get their wish – clearly lots of people in Scotland voted for the SNP in 2011, surely those folk want the country to be set free from the UK. Well, not exactly.

The SNP did well in the 2011 election because they had performed competently as a minority government in the four years from 2007. For various reasons the other big parties in Scotland – Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservative – did not perform well at the 2011 election.

Opinion polls consistently show the majority of voters in Scotland want to remain within the UK but the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, who is also Scotland’s First Minister, hopes he can convince them otherwise.

So what will happen? Well at this point I get out my crystal ball. Would you like the winning numbers for this weekend’s Lottery as well? Yes? Of course, I don’t know.

My guess is that we will have an exciting, lively, at times heated, campaign at the end of which there will be a fairly narrow vote to stay within the UK. But nothing in life is certain – except death and taxes, of course.

What if Scotland overall voted in favour of independence but Orkney said no? In the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution Orkney did vote in favour of a Scottish parliament but by the smallest margin of all areas – just 57.3 per cent.

Orkney was part of Norway until 1468 when it came to Scotland through a marriage dowry and it retains a healthy independent spirit. There is also suspicion in Orkney about being ruled from Edinburgh and whether it is any better than being ruled from London or some other remote place.

Remember, while tv documentaries about Orkney love to wax lyrical about its remoteness, at the edge of the UK, it is in fact other places that are remote from us. We believe we are at the centre.

In December at the Kirkwall Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, held in St Magnus Cathedral, Tom Christer Nilsen, Mayor of Hordaland – a region of Norway twinned with Orkney – made reference to the King of Norway in 1468 giving away what wasn’t his to give.

So I had been musing for some weeks on the possibility of a revolt within Orkney, a refusal to go into an independent Scotland, when about ten days ago the Earl of Caithness actually proposed that Orkney and Shetland should have the right to remain part of the UK if Scotland becomes independent.

Other changes could flow from the momentous change to an independent Scotland. What will happen to the rest of the UK? Will it still be called that? What might the people of Wales want to do?

What about the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed? This is a town just inside England, south of the Scottish border, which has changed hands many times over history between Scotland and England. Might they decide they would prefer to join Scotland? Would that be possible?

More worryingly, Lord Empey has warned that independence for Scotland risks reigniting conflict in Northern Ireland. I can imagine an independent Scotland being seen as the starting flag for the break-up of the UK, which could lead to pressure for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

I have no strong opinion on whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or Ireland – let the good people who live there decide – but please let’s not return to the days of terrorism.

And what about England itself? In some ways the Conservative Party is taking an honourable position in this debate. Err, yes, you heard that correctly. I know it is always fashionable to knock the Tories.

But the party is fighting to retain the United Kingdom while simultaneously realising it would have much to gain from a Westminster parliament that has had all the Scottish Labour MPs removed, thereby giving the Conservatives an almost guaranteed majority.

I think also the birth of an independent Scotland would see the nature of England itself change. People would no longer have a split personality of being English and British – they would be English. The politics and society of England might develop in unexpected ways that we can’t imagine.

So, even if Confucius did not originally say it, we are living in interesting times in the UK, and certainly here in Scotland and Orkney. It’s a privilege to be here.

Let’s get strapped in and hold on for an exciting ride into the future.

To find out more

An explanation of what Confucius did not say:
http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A807374

My Who Am I? blog entry:
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/who-am-i-2/

Some unresolved questions about Scottish independence explored:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16636325

What the Earl of Caithness had to say:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16698626

What Lord Empey had to say:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-16749576

Blogs worth reading, from Brian Taylor, Political Editor, BBC Scotland:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/correspondents/briantaylor/

Who Am I?

Who am I? I had it here somewhere.

Who am I? I don’t mean I’ve lost my memory – well, not exactly, more on that later. But I know who I am in the sense of remembering my name and address. I can remember my age though, these days, in my fifties, I have to stop and work it out.

I can also remember my past – sort of. Do you ever read autobiographies? How do people remember that level of detail about their lives? Unless they have kept detailed diaries they surely can’t.

But I can remember my past – in parts. I remember the broad outline of where I was born, where I went to school, where I have worked. I can remember where I’ve taken holidays (mostly).

Here’s where it gets tricky, and I struggle to recall everything about my past. Let me give you a couple of random examples.

One, have I ever been to Nottingham? I pluck this place out of the air as somewhere I might have been. I’m sure it has much to recommend it but I just don’t know if I’ve been to Nottingham, though I once lived within two or three hours of the city and I’ve certainly visited other places not far away.

Second example. What was the name of that girlfriend who…? Well, no need to go into details about her personality but I can remember the nick-name she was unknowingly given by my friend yet not her real name.

If our past contributes to who we are, as surely it does, there are many parts of my past which seem to be missing. I could give you lots more examples. I suppose you could say they contribute to who I am without me being aware of it.

Let’s look at this another way. What sort of person am I? That must be a big part of who I am.

Well, I think I’m a friendly, easy-going sort of chap, hard-working when I need to be but easily distracted if work can be put off. What else? I don’t know. I’m not even sure about the little bit of personality I’ve committed to print.

How about national identity? That must be straightforward. I’m a UK citizen. Yeah, we can all agree on that. But if we dig deeper?

Up until perhaps ten years ago – there goes that memory again – I’d have said I was British Full Stop. Then devolution came along and I started to re-think. If the Scots and Welsh have their own identities what about me?

I started to think of myself more as English, particularly when I saw Scottish MPs at Westminster voting on English social policy while English MPs had no say on similar issues in the Scottish Parliament. Let’s have an English Parliament I said.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

But then in April 2010 my wife and I moved away from London – see, I can remember some facts and dates – to Orkney.

For those who don’t know, the Orkney Isles number about 70, of which maybe a dozen are inhabited. They are situated off the north-east coast of Scotland. Beyond Orkney, well, not much, there’s Fair Isle and then Shetland and then the Arctic.

So now I am an Englishmen living in Scotland. Well, yes and no. Technically that is correct but it isn’t really like that. Orkney falls within Scotland, of course, but it is not what I would call “of Scotland”.

Yes you do see the Saltire, the Scottish flag, flying in Orkney but it’s not that common. If you come here expecting to buy traditional Scottish holiday souvenirs featuring kilts, bagpipes and terrier dogs you’ll have to look harder than in Edinburgh or the Highlands.

If you ask folk who grew up in Orkney how they regard themselves they will say Orcadian first. To be honest, I’m not sure what they would say second.

Remember that Orkney was part of Norway until 1468 when it came to Scotland through a marriage dowry.

In the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution Orkney did vote in favour of a Scottish parliament but by the smallest margin of all areas – just 57.3 per cent.

And on the second vote within the referendum, whether the Scottish parliament should have income tax varying powers, Orkney, along with Dumfries & Galloway, voted against.

So I am an Englishman living in Orkney and, kind of, living in Scotland. Am I an Orcadian? No, you have to be born here for that but “incomers” are made very welcome. Orcadians realise they play an important part in the make-up of the islands’ economic and social fabric.

Of course, there is another Scottish referendum on the horizon which will decide whether the nation becomes independent. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Orkney will vote against and that Scotland-wide the result will run very close.

If there is a yes vote I will find myself a citizen of a new country that is not England, or Britain, or the UK, and I may be even more unsure about who I am. Goodness.

Another ingredient in the mix is my wife who is American, from California. I don’t think she has directly influenced whether I feel English, or British, or whatever, but living with attitudes from another continent has helped show-up some of the daft assumptions that any nation’s inhabitants grow up with.

You might think all this sounds as though I am unhappy and unsure. That’s not true. I’m mostly happy, no-one is happy all the time. I’m reasonably content with my life, though with dreams to pursue. I live in a wonderful part of the world, I am privileged compared to many.

But I am unsure about who I am. Any thoughts on identity anyone?

PS: I’ve been thinking some more about Nottingham. I now believe I went, once or twice, to football matches at Nottingham Forest. Sorry Notts County fans, I’ve not been there yet. And it’s a long way from Orkney. One day perhaps.

If you want to find out if I ever get to Notts County you can follow me on Twitter. I’m also on LinkedIn.