A Fight Against The Absurd: From The Province of the Cat
“Hellas and poverty are foster sisters” is a saying recorded in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus. It invokes a continuous theme of Greek history: that the natural poverty of the land has acted as a spur to the enterprise of its inhabitants. A parallel theme has accompanied the Highlands and Islands of Scotland through time, until the early nineteenth century, when the enterprise of the inhabitants was ignored and deemed surplus to feudal requirements, so much so that the native people of the North of Scotland were forced to go abroad and help found such successful nations as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. The real poverty of the Highlands and Islands remains our chronic lack of people. Recently Scotland was ranked second in the world after India by Rough Guide as the most favoured tourist destination. In good part this is due to the natural beauty, as opposed to the “natural poverty”, of the Highlands and Islands.
The scenic splendours of the Highlands are well known and the vast empty spaces of the North and West a special draw. How many of these welcome visitors are aware that the emptiness is far from natural and that the poverty of the so-called wilderness is the result of land management and ownership and is, historically, relatively recent? That there are any people at all left in the Highlands and on the islands is due to their tenacity and resilience as individuals rather than the result of some recent social or economic strategy. Which is why I find it ironic that certain sections of civic society are getting suddenly dewy-eyed when the demise of Highlands and Islands Enterprise is mentioned. The Scottish Government’s plan to co-join the board of HIE and Scottish Enterprise is seen as “proof of centralisation” or evidence that the Central Belt administration does not “understand” the Highlands and Islands. One could argue that all governments centralise out of habit and that if the present one in Edinburgh is not sensitive to the “culture of the Highlands and Islands” it is not the first. Nor I suspect the last. This concern would only be constructive if it were the case that Highlands and Islands Enterprise had been a rip-roaring success in regenerating the Highlands and Islands and halting population decline since its inception in 1990. It has not.
HIE was a Tory creation, cobbled together to supersede the Highlands and Islands Development Board and become the Northern love-child of Scottish Enterprise, which itself was a necessary creation to fill the hole left by the dismantling of the Scottish Development Agency, so loathed by Thatcher’s ministers because of its concern for society as well as industry. Business solutions to the problems inflicted on a geographically remote and fiscally vulnerable community by over two hundred years of liberal economics was always an awkward ideological implant rather than a thought through planning measure. HIE has now retreated into a functional incoherence where the shrinking client base and the funding decisions are surrounded by reams of policy documents which defend the indefensible behind a paper wall. What the inevitable demise of HIE and the increasing problems facing Highland Council do, I would suggest, is to present Nicol Sturgeon’s Government with an opportunity if she and they were brave enough to embrace it. Who among us is astute enough these days to foretell if our politicians are capable of seeing a circumstance as an opportunity or do they always view everything as a potential threat?
Recently, for example, Kezia Dugdale was interviewed on Radio Scotland and was asked what she would do if the High Court Judges instructed the Scottish Parliament to have a say on Brexit. “I am not getting into hypotheticals!” she informed the reporter with all the reasoning of a drowning woman ignoring an inflatable life raft floating past her while the stricken oil rig she had just jumped from continued to burn. I, on the other hand, am very keen on hypotheticals, so let me float a few past you.
Two of the main structural problems facing an emergent independent Scotland are taxation and local government. If a radical pilot project were enacted in the Highlands and Islands – an area representing two thirds of the landmass and sea-area of Scotland – then, if successful, it could be rolled out over the rest of Scotland. But before we get too involved in the deconstruction and reinvention of taxation and local government, those two civil “foster sisters”, it may be informative to discuss what passes as governance in Scotland and what it could become.
One of the many failings of the Labour Party North of the Tweed is that its main criticism of the SNP is that they are passing Tory austerity onto Scotland, that they are merely administrating the pain cooked up in London. Now while there may be an element of truth in this – how could it be otherwise – but if this is the best Labour can do as a critique then no amount of longed for gains at the forthcoming local government elections can save them. Part of the kink in their particular dialectic is the reality that what politics has become in Scotland (and the UK) is a form of managerialism. The problem for the SNP is that in continuing to manage a deeply flawed (some would say absurd) fiscal arrangement, where an inadequately resourced deal is supposed to cover absolutely everything (or nothing) and the powers you have are cripplingly limited, variable and in a state of flux, is that you begin to destroy yourself politically. What does it say to the world that our politicians insist on maintaining such an absurd regime, a thing that was never designed to work? How absurd (or obvious) is it to suggest that devolution will never benefit the people of Scotland but will always maintain Westminster control? What we need is a new political narrative. We need our politicians to stop being managers and begin to be storytellers.
“What does it say to the world that our politicians insist on maintaining such an absurd regime, a thing that was never designed to work? How absurd (or obvious) is it to suggest that devolution will never benefit the people of Scotland but will always maintain Westminster control? What we need is a new political narrative. We need our politicians to stop being managers and begin to be storytellers.”
What story does Nicola Sturgeon tell her fellow Scots? What story about Scotland does she tell the world? What narrative line, as a country, are we embarked upon? The dreary, monotone language of managerialism inspires no-one. The story of a people moving forward requires a more poetic language than the spare prose of policy wonks. John Berger, the writer and critic who tragically died over the New Year, used to talk (ironically) of the storyteller as “the secretary of death”. By that he meant that the storyteller is about life and that death is not the end because story represents habitation, of a messenger returning to tell the tale in order to rescue or protect society from the absurd. For Berger reality had no meaning until it became a story and that language, its significance, comes out of character. The character in a story – as do the people of a nation – begin their journey along the narrative line (when they enter into the story) out of history, out of the past. They move forward through time in a perennial “now” which is the present, then leave the story and move off into the future which is the imagination. Above the narrative line is the objective world of events and action and below it is the subjective, emotional world of character and people. The energy needed to propel a character along the narrative line from history into the imagination is generated by the everyday reality of social co-operation and individual resistance: the struggles and conflicts created by being alive and interacting with other people.
If story represents habitation, what story can you tell about a place like the Highlands and Islands where in many areas there are no people habiting? Into what possible future can we imagine this place progressing?
Well, the pilot project I dream of is one where local democracy becomes truly democratic and representative, where local communities have real powers to set and raise local taxes which will be raised from at least two primary revenue sources: the land and from renewable energy. Now the Highlands is a various beast with a populous city in in its South-East corner and vast empty hinterlands in its far North West and communities of all sorts and size in between, perched on islands, on headlands or up glens and straths nestling between hills and mountains. Lesley Riddoch has written on Bella often about the unusual nature of Scottish local government in European terms. Instead of being part of the massive Highland Council my own native Caithness, for example, could easily support five local councils – one in Thurso, one in Wick and three others for the central, north west and south east of the county. These councils could raise revenue, implement services, and create and redistribute wealth by instigating, amongst other things, a local Land Value Tax.
Andy Wightman, now a Green MSP, explains such a measure as follows,
“Land value tax is a levy collected by government (local or national) on the value of land and land alone. No account is taken of capital improvements such as buildings, drainage or fixtures of any kind. The levy is set as a percentage of either the capital value of the land (for a house worth £150,000, this might be around £100,000) or the rental value of the land. The rental value of land is simply the annualised capital value derived by multiplying the capital value by the prevailing discount rate (being the cost of capital or the return expected from the investment of capital). A discount rate of 10% applied to the above example will result in an annual rental value of £10,000. LVT levy of 5% of the capital value of such land = £5000. LVT levy of 50% of the rental value (£10,000) = £5000.”
(A Land Value Tax For Scotland: A report prepared by Andy Wightman for the Green MSPs in the Scottish Parliament is here)
My proposed local Caithness councils could also raise revenue by either owning or leasing wind generators and debiting the accrued revenue in a community trust which would then invest in local initiatives to create employment, build affordable homes, provide local services. Where this energy generation was offshore (either, for example, on the sea bed of the Pentland Firth, or in the massed surface arrays proposed for the Moray Firth) the nearest local council would administer this revenue. The council in whose ward sat the coastline between Dunnet and Duncansby Head, the Southern side of the Pentland Firth, would have an ever-expanding fund available to it for inward investment so that it could create a viable economy which would attract people to the area. This, of course, would require a public deconstruction of the Crown Estates in Scotland but who could argue that this would not be a progressive measure, acting as they do at present as little more than medieval feu collectors for all revenues from our foreshore and for twelve miles offshore? What I am proposing is an end to this and the beginning of a system of local democracy and taxation which will ensure not only a stabilisation of the Highlands and Islands but an economic basis for its increase with accountable, local control over resources. The sea bed and the land, as they are currently owned and managed, is stolen wealth. It is why the Highlands and Islands have such a sparse population.
Democracy means that everybody benefits and until everyone does nothing meaningful is going to happen: we will have no forward narrative, no story. You may say that what I am proposing (probably inadequately) is nothing more than a fiction? But, as John Berger would argue, what is fiction (story) except a fight against the absurd? I would also say that what passes for economic normality in the Highlands and Islands is absurd. What I desire is cultural normality: where it is not phenomenal to be able to live and work, produce and create, breathe and live in the so-called peripheral places which the liberal economic paradigm has left abandoned.
There is a Russian saying which Boris Pasternak uses at the end of his poem “Hamlet”, and it is.
“To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field”.
But neither should it be impossible. Historically the foster sisters of beauty and poverty have stalked all dreams of social, economic and cultural renewal of the Highlands and Islands. In whose interests is it to have the Highlands remain empty of people and to have the islands constantly lose their best young people? Who knows, maybe the idea of real local democracy, of a land value tax and local renewable energy generation, ownership and benefit may work? Isn’t that a story worth telling? As the year of 2017 gets underway we must be optimistic and dare to look along the narrative line, from the past to the future: we must fight against the absurd into which the wealth stealing elite and their Tory managers want to cast us.
©George Gunn 2017.