Farewell to Stromness by Max – the most famous piece of protest music to come from Orkney.
Waiting for our troubled MP to make up his mind feels rather like being caught between storms, the quiet day between weathers.
Feeling quiet and reflective, I feel as if I have seen more of what I value about Orkney than I have ever done before. This is a good place with decent folk. We are nothing special, just ourselves. We are not romantic or remote, just people who live on islands. It has been good to me, as a gay man, as someone who was very ill recently and who needed a great deal of love and support which my neighbours gave without counting the cost. That is the islands at their best, egalitarian, hospitable. The worst thing anyone can be called is ‘bigsy’ To not be ‘decent’ is terrible.
I am speaking of Orkney of course. I know little of Shetland, know London far, far better. That may sound strange to many, but it is true. These island groups are very different from each other, very far apart geographically (a whole day’s sail on the ferry) and anyone who claims to speak for both island groups is an idiot or an MP, or Michael White in the Guardian, or some combination of the above. White pontificated last week,
“Scotland needs political pluralism, and the Northern Isles needs it even more if it is to keep the centralising government in Holyrood safely at arm’s length. “It’s Orkney’s oil”, eh?”
“Contrite Carmichael, warts and all? Sounds OK to me at this distance. But it’s not up to me, it’s up to his local party activists and, in due course, his voters who may barely remember it all by Christmas.”
I have no idea if White has ever been here or spoken to anyone with any direct experience of us in the last thirty or so years. It has been a long time, if ever, since anyone has said ‘its Orkney’s oil.’ He certainly thinks we have short memories and seems to confuse distance from London with stupidity.
It is not a mistake people often make twice.
We have a long history of dealing with bullies and often use their beliefs about our innocence against them. There are many, many stories told with delight about this. One of my favourites goes back to the Napoleonic wars. When the press gang was hunting down men to take off to the Navy their prey would hide in the hills. Women left food out for their men folk on cairns that still stand near many farm houses and it would be collected at night. Soldiers were of course suspicious but actually believed us when we told them it was being left out for the fairy folk, the trows and the hogboons. Who were the idiots?
Consider the uranium scare. In the late 70’s it was found in the West Mainland. Thatcher’s crew wanted to dig open caste mines under this very burrow for the damn stuff. Stromness would have been destroyed. I was very little at the time but I well remember hearing old women discussing how best to make and store Molotov cocktails. They knew how to do it and they meant it. The miners kept well away.
That was when Max wrote ‘Farewell to Stromness” as a protest piece for the “Yellow Cake Review.” Now, played at every funeral in the parish, it has become part of the folk tradition which is the highest accolade any composer can achieve.
Or think about those numpties who tried to trick Shetland out of its oil cash. They forgot how badly treated those islands had been by the establishment at the end of the Second World War. Unemployment soared as the demand for wool and fish declined. There was real hardship that lasted for generations and so the Shetland Islands Council was determined not to make that mistake again. Ian Clark, the negotiator prepared himself well and soon sorted things out. In his own words.
“We were called down to a meeting in Shell Centre and they told us that they had done all their calculations, and, on the basis of what we were demanding, they couldn’t afford to come to Shetland and that they were going to the mainland of Scotland. My response to that was to say to them that it was a very happy day. I wanted to begin by congratulating them on their technical expertise that they could take the gas and the crude to the mainland of Scotland . Secondly, since our previous discussions had seldom been happy ones, when we went back to Shetland and gave them this news, we would be heroes indeed. And we got up and walked towards the door. And physically we were put back in our chairs and told ‘We’ve got to come to Shetland. So that was another wee piece of pressure which really didn’t quite work for them. And it was at that stage we realised we really had won the battle.”’
Of course Ian Clark had the support of a fine and conscientious MP, the fondly remembered Jo Grimond. His legacy has meant that the islands stayed Liberal and then Liberal Democrat since. Grimond opposed Polaris and supported Home Rule. It is hard to imagine him ever voting for the hated bedroom tax. He never had to apologise for lying to the electorate during a general election campaign. No one has ever had to defend his reputation. He has been dead a long time now though.
I have also seen some of the worst of the islands too. We have lived for too long in a mixture of a one party state, and something worse still, a no party state. Our local councillors do not stand for any political party but are all independents. They tend to be older, and drawn from the magic families that own the big farms, big shops and businesses, from the entitled This gives far too much power to the bureaucrats and vested interests. This kind of oligarchy between big families and dignitaries has governed the islands for hundreds of years in one guise or another and has let them confuse island identity with their own political and commercial interests.
To see how fierce their anger is look at the facebook page that carries the interview I did for Radio Orkney. The fury this caused is positively GilbertandSullivaesque n tho less well scripted. One well known local stirrer has called me a ‘traitor to the islands’ which stung far more than I would have liked. It is to be foreign.
To him, I am bad for trade, ‘putting the islands in a bad light.’ This forgets that democracy and free speech are values held dear, even when people are on holiday.
One tourist who saw us protesting outside the Cathedral wrote to the Yes Orkney page,
I have just returned from holiday in Orkney and came across the silent protest at Kirkwall two weeks ago on the way into the children’s’ fiddles and accordion concert. Rather that discouraging us, we were interested to read the placards and pleased that in one part of the UK the spirit of democracy is thriving. I have been told by several people that Mr Carmichael is a good constituency MP, but the easy-going Orcadian manner should not allow him to allegedly break the law. Letters in the Orcadian have been generally over-excited on the anti-SNP side and well reasoned on the other. Scotland has gone through huge changes in the last few years and the old Liberal tradition, alive there and in Cornwall, is sadly dead, replaced by a much more rightwing party … Good luck with the Petition.
Again and again, the little islanders ask of us in the protests. ‘are you really from here, where does the money come from?’ Most of us no longer answer these questions. To entertain it is to give then currency and that encourages the idea that some are more islandish than others. Nonsense. When it comes to politics, being a citizen is what matters. We should all be judged by how we choose to be and live; not by origins, birth and kinship these connections over which we have no control. Identity politics framed by these things has led to much of the intimidation members of this campaign have experienced. This intimidation has come from those who should know better. Not from those who would normally be considered rough but from the wealthy, the prosperous and the self-righteous. Their hatred of what we are doing seems visceral and that is amongst some Labour supporters too.
This whole issue is divisive. There is no getting away from that. The root of the division lies firmly with the one man who lied to the electorate and his core supporters were having to try to defend the indefensible. One of the things they say again and again is that “He has said sorry. Surely that should be enough. He did not take his severance pay”
Indeed, Carmichael has confessed his lies, his own words in the Orcadian newspaper bear repeating;
“I understand that my behaviour has done damage to the relationship of trust that I have with many of you as your Member of Parliament.
I regret that more than I can say. and I am truly sorry for what I have done- not just for giving my agreement to the disclosure of the Scotland Office memo but also for not subsequently been truthful about it.”
His contrition does not contain the key elements of repentance because he is still living off the fruits of his wrongdoing. That is unacceptable for it will lead to no amendment of life, but is no more than being upset at being caught. He claims his record of excellence as a constituency MP should save him. Tosh. No husband has ever succeeded by pleading his fifteen years happy marriage before the murder of his wife as a defence or set the level of his own punishment. That is cheek, special pleading. If our opponents accepted that we had a point, perhaps, things would be better but they insist that we are nefarious conspirators, perhaps because they do not believe that ordinary people possess the skills, resources and sheer power to bring them to book.
We do, we are living as if we are in the first days of a new country.
Enough of bullies and the politics of entitlement.
Radical freedom. That’s what we want. No more bullies. No more politicians pretending to speak for us without asking our permission. If Carmichael doesn’t resign now and the case goes to Court and he loses, his epitaph will be like that of Phil Woolas, a piece of case law, ‘Morrison and others versus Carmichael, 2015; we will be joined, Vole and MP. together forever in the Law. If he survives this proceeding, and at best it will be a Pyrrhic victory , then there are two more cases to go. They will take up all his time and his constituents will be forgotten as he tries to save his skin. And to what point? He has already admitted he is finished by saying he will stand down in 2020 – sounds like much pain for little gain, a long slow withering away and a wretched end to what was up until its last few weeks a glittering career.
At the very least, he could put his party first.
Carmichael seems to not care about the damage to the party. In 2016 there are the Scottish Elections, the ones that will pave the way to the next referendum. If Carmichael stays, then Liam is finished. I disagree with his politics and will campaign against him, but I would like him to lose because there is a better candidate, not because he is collateral damage. He has done as well here as anyone in his party could and he deserves a lot better than that.