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The islands invite the case for localism to be explored

When the remaining St Kildans decided to leave their island home they petitioned the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Although touchy, as governments always are, regarding the likely cost, the Scottish Office (as was) organised the evacuation and did its best to resettle the islanders in Argyll. Tom Johnston, then under-secretary of state for Scotland, tried hard to prevent it becoming a media circus.

It didn't work, and, almost 84 years later, the island's bleak landscape still fascinates journalists and tourists. When I came ashore on Friday it was overcast, just as it was on August 27, 1930. The air was heavy and wet.

I was predictably keen to see the St Kildan "parliament", or rather the former Post Office outside which the island's adult males would congregate every morning for discussion of local affairs. Such an assembly was hardly unusual, but its designation was the brainchild of Glasgow Herald journalist John Sands. "I called this assembly the Parliament," he recalled saying to the gathering, "and with a laugh they adopted the name."

Then as now it's tempting to believe St Kilda came as close to true independence as it was possible to be. Indeed, an early chronicler fancied they were the only people in the world "who feel the sweetness of true liberty"; the islanders didn't vote in elections, didn't pay tax and paid little heed to what went on in Edinburgh let alone London.

The mainland treated its westernmost territory with benign neglect, and if it had a view of the island's distinct society it was one of embarrassment. As Tom Steel observed in his readable (yet unreliable) book The Life And Death Of St Kilda, there was an irony in "a nation that could administer the largest empire the world had ever seen" failing "to provide adequately for a people who lived but 100 miles out into the Atlantic". Last week, the Commonwealth Games baton touched down on Hirta, St Kilda's largest island (something the Stornoway Gazette dubbed "controversial", not least because it was at the expense of a visit to North Uist), proof that even without a conventional population it's on the UK's (and indeed the world's) radar to perhaps a greater extent than it was a century ago.

Otherwise St Kilda was mercifully far removed from the independence referendum (although presumably its National Trust and military personnel are able to vote in September), but elsewhere in Na h-Eileanan Siar it had a visible presence. Yes Eilean Siar is preparing to open an office in Stornoway having raised funds online, and impressive wooden Yes banners punctuate the long narrow roads.

Former Nato general-secretary Lord Robertson was in his native Islay the other day to wield whisky as proof we're Better Together, while later this week the local SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil and pro-independence broadcaster Lesley Riddoch will embark on a mini tour promoting the potential for a post-Yes Scotland to "Blossom".

And of course there have been debates. This week's West Highland Free Press complains (reasonably) last week's BBC Scotland broadcast from Portree "offered little specific focus on issues affecting the Highlands and Islands" but instead, with a non-local panel to boot, considered the independence referendum through a conventional pan-Scottish lens. An independence debate organised by the Am Paipear newspaper seems to have fared better, touching on fishing, ferries and the future of the Hebrides Range. Local Better Together chairman Alasdair Morrison referred to himself as a "proud, patriotic islander, Scot, and a citizen of the UK", while an editorial implored readers to "find out what facts you can, and make a serious and informed decision".

Curiously, there was no mention of that political buzzword "localism". Anyone embarking on the long drive from Edinburgh to Glendale (on the northern tip of Skye) will appreciate the islands are as remote from Edinburgh bureaucracy as Whitehall. Independence might, in itself, bring central government closer to the isles, but anything beyond that is conjecture. There are other models; three accidents of constitutional history are already self-governing within the British Isles, and successfully so.

The case for localism scarcely needs elaboration, yet ironically it falls to wicked, centralising Westminster to advance such an agenda, even extending its City Deal scheme - admittedly opportunistically - to Glasgow. The Scottish Government's grudging reaction said a lot about its attitude to localism (not to mention cities); indeed it prefers to move in the opposite direction: Highland councillors recently registered their disapproval of gun-carrying officers in the region, a policy associated with the former Strathclyde and Tayside forces but extended north by the centrally-run Police Scotland.

Scottish Ministers have proved as opportunistic as their Westminster counterparts, responding to skilful lobbying by Orkney and Shetland with, ironically, an offer of "more powers" within a Scottish context. But once you've conceded certain islands are distinctive constitutional entities, then lots of Nationalist arguments come back to bite them: why are the northern isles "better together" with Scotland? And will they always get the (Scottish) government they vote for?

As Tom Steel wrote, the history of St Kilda "shows the folly of thinking of the islanders as similar to ourselves, and their community but a distant cousin of our vast urbanised society" while, similarly, to argue somehow a common Scottish "interest" extends from Skye to Edinburgh is as much a nonsense as maintaining a shared demos between Shetland and Land's End. But then such arguments hold a certain appeal to nationalists of a Scottish and British bent.

Recently, mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah indulged in this line of thinking with his non-rigorous assertion that there "is little doubt the history and traditions of Scotland have led to a social conscience more akin to that of Scandinavia than of England".

Columnist Martin Kettle took Neal Ascherson to task for similar claims about "Scottish exceptionalism", observing that while it encompassed elements of truth it was nevertheless "often exaggerated" and "too often allowed to pass unchallenged". Kettle quoted from Ascherson's marvellous book Black Sea, which in turn quoted Eric Hobsbawm: "We are different from the others - and better."

Differences are, of course, often exaggerated to make a political point, and such a motivation takes little account of more nuanced reality. In fact, Sir Michael's argument would be better applied to the Western Isles, which not only look Scandinavian but by dint of their location are necessarily more egalitarian. English is usually in parenthesis here, and many of the place names (perhaps including St Kilda itself) derive from Old Norse.

Writing in 1975 amid an energy crisis and growing environmental concerns and with a post-war consensus beginning to fray around the edges, Tom Steel mused studying St Kilda, its traditions and evacuation "might provoke some to question our future". And so, amid similarly stormy political and economic seas, it does today.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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