2007 - 2020

Highlands and Islands Entropy: From The Province of the Cat

12346433_10153488732793300_2208535944825391740_nLast week the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was quick to quash any rumours about the possible merger of Highlands and Islands Enterprise with Scottish Enterprise. That Government Ministers had “reportedly” been meeting to discuss savings which could be found either to Sottish Enterprise with its £300 million budget and 1,270 staff or to Highlands and Islands Enterprise with its £79.5 million budget and staff of 300, was not alluded to. All these discussions, allegedly, were taking place in the light of the Scottish Government’s “Enterprise and Skills Review” which itself is a prelude to the forthcoming £500 million “Scottish Growth Fund”, which will be designed to “support business, the workforce and to grow the economy”.

One significant incident which has given rise to such stories was that the chief executive of HIE has recently left the organisation – and only an “interim” replacement has been appointed, according to Tony Mackay, an Inverness based economist.

“HIE have not yet advertised the post and I understand that they have been told not to do that until the government review has been completed.” he told the press.

Tony Mackay also said that the “Enterprise and Skills Review” had invited evidence by August 15 and that it was currently being assessed by officials. He concluded a merger of HIE and SE “will not go down well locally (in the Highlands and Islands) and I am sure that there would be a lot of local opposition to that.”

Local opposition or not, interest in this story has been practically non-existent in the Central Belt. Since The Herald published David Ross’s piece on the merger idea on the 27th of September there has been a precise 0 amount of comments on the issue on the paper’s website. I may be guilty of reading the runes wrongly but after Brexit the Highlands and Islands will have even more barriers between ourselves and mainland Europe. If HIE were to go the way of their own Local Enterprise Companies (the LEC’s), who were disappeared a few years ago, so now that all decisions are taken in Inverness. If all planning for the North of Scotland is taken in Edinburgh, then because of Brexit we will not only be a periphery of Europe but be a periphery of a periphery of Europe. As Neal Ascherson put it in his article “Scotland Continental” (Bella, 30th September) when John Swinney spoke to the Scottish Parliament about the Brexit vote last June he had to explain to the MSPS’s why Nicola Sturgeon was not there,

“On hearing the shocking news, he said, she had at once gone to Europe.

‘Gone to Europe?’ It didn’t occur to him that Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney and some five million others in his nation were already living in Europe and its Union.”

Until Theresa May and her “Little-England” cohorts drag us out of “Europe” we are still there, geographically at least, and in light of this who cares about the possible demise of Highlands and Islands Enterprise? Not many Herald readers, obviously.

I must confess I find it difficult to care much either and I know there are legions of people North of the “Highland Line” who have benefited greatly from their largesse and my theatre company, Grey Coast, had done so, modestly, in the past. But I find it hard to muster concern for a quango that has escaped a bonfire. One of the consequences of Brexit is that there will be an end to the European structural funds that have provided harbours, ferries, roads and social and civic buildings and projects of all kinds across the Highlands and Islands. My complaint is not what the Highlands and Islands Enterprise have done but what they have not done. When you look at the HIE website it is full of all kinds of mission statements and strategies that have taken the arts of sophistry, semantics and sheer gobbledygook to new exalted levels. There are plans, priorities, and reviews and the like with many visions, initiatives and conditions which have produced outcomes, opportunities and developments, all of which the dispassionate viewer might mistake for their own organisational justification. I am perfectly happy to accept that this is unfair but when I see land owned and managed in the same old way, when the macho attraction to project size over project efficiency (even beauty) remains much as it was since the 1970’s, along with the mismanagement of broadband, communications in general and the endemic conservative nature of the branded imagination, I can shake my head and say, “There should be more to this business than sticking your name on a logo.”

Why bother being so hard on a quango? Because the Highlands and Islands as well as being very beautiful are also very vulnerable. They are also under-populated. Who, seriously, thinks that Holyrood or Westminster will replace the structural funds that the North will lose because of Brexit? Will HIE be able to halt the inevitable depopulation which will occur when they do not?

The dictionary definition of “enterprise” is:

1: a project or undertaking that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky.
2: readiness to engage in daring or difficult action: initiative “showed great enterprise in dealing with the crisis.”

On the other hand, “entropy”, which I maintain is the condition the UK has rendered Scotland in general into, means

“a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system. The second law of thermodynamics says that ‘entropy always increases with time’.”

I thought about this two weeks ago when over one hundred armed policemen and twenty SAS personnel were careering around Caithness escorting buckshee uranium the US had “liberated” from the former Soviet republic of Georgia and were now transporting from Dounreay to Wick airport and then across the Atlantic in a US Air Force transport plane to the Savannah River nuclear site in South Carolina. The necessary airport runway extension at Wick cost £8 million and the transfer (the first of a projected 18) cost a reported £5 million. £90 million is a lot of potential “enterprise”. Since September, for the North Highlands, that cash will only increase the “entropy”.

There is the short story by Anton Chekhov, written in 1898, called “The Man in a Case”. In it a dim witted teacher of Greek, Belikov, plans to get married but the “enterprise” kills him. It is not marriage as such which does for Belikov but his attitude to authority. Of Belikov Chekhov writes

“Reality irritated him; it scared him and kept him in a permanent state of alarm and maybe he always praised the past and things which had never existed because he wanted to justify his timidity and his aversion to the present. Belikov even tried concealing his ideas in a case. All he could understand clearly were regulations and newspaper articles in which something was forbidden… the thing was forbidden and there was no more to be said. But there was always a dubious element lurking in permissions and authorizations for him – something disturbing and incomplete. Every kind of infringement, deviation, or departure from the rules depressed him…” (translated by Rosamund Bartlett)

The thing which finally does for Belikov is seeing his intended, Varenka, riding a bicycle. “You must have respect for authority,” he tells her. “Where might it all lead!” he despairs. She responds to this nonsense by laughing at him. Belikov takes to his bed and never gets up again. So, sadly, he too is permanently concealed in a case.

There were a few Belikovs’ in the letters column of the John O’Groat Journal in the week following the shipment of filched uranium and the subsequent but small protest by anti-nuclear campaigners. In one pure Chekhovian missive a pro-nuclear Belikov hectors those with a different point of view,

“The reality is this. We live in an age where criminal offences are an everyday event. If people taking part in or planning any terrorist offences were not aware of these shipments… they are now. Please… before you make your thoughts and comments public, think what the consequences may be of the information you are giving out to everyone.”

And so it goes on in a similarly hysterical Belikovian fashion entreating us, at all costs, to bury our heads in the sand. Another Belikov suggested that the new “international” airport at Wick would bring lots of tourists to visit the new, proposed, nuclear archive which will be sited next to Tesco’s. I ask you, why are we in Caithness so lucky, so blessed? It turns out that despite the £8 million spent on the runway at Wick airport it is still too short for the US Airforce C17 Globemaster used to transport the highly enriched uranium.

Screen-4_dd8ddd3a-5495-4add-bec7-d4826c2c992f_grandeThe plane has to land at Lossiemouth first, off-load fuel, then take off and land at Wick, on-load the nasties, take off and land at Lossiemouth again, on-load fuel and then set off for the USA. It’s good to know that the authorities know exactly what they are doing and that we do not have to worry our pointy heads about a thing.

Like Belikov HIE are far too cautious and afraid of reality. Maybe all governments everywhere behave in the same way? Is it any wonder millions of people are addicted to tranquilisers? What passes as a “strategy” is nothing but a set of random actions and unplanned events which policy architects claim as opportunities. What is offered as “vision” is no more than the view from inside the case.

Take for example the ever increasing instances of police brutality towards black people, men in particular, in the United States. I am always amazed by the amount of head-scratching that goes on when sociologists come on TV to explain why this is happening. The very medium they are participating in gives ample evidence of the normalisation of a skewed perception with endless hours of programmes beginning “Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)” where the narrative view is always that of the “law enforcer” or “investigator”, in various stages of the guise of “hero”, is protecting you the law abiding viewer/citizen from the external threat of societal breakdown. This, the narrative goes, is always “out there”, potentially endangering you in your safe non-sub-prime mortgaged house, from those “who hate our way of life” and who will steal from you, do you great violence and even kill you for no other reason than you are a … it is here, gentle reader, that my analytic patience runs out, because here we are seeing reality down the camera, from behind the police line, as we were in 1984/5 during the Miner’s Strike. We are back in the case where authority wants us.

I then think of the endless hours of British television which are dedicated in one way or another to buying and selling property, or converting semi-derelict farm cottages in European countries which actually get sunshine and where Brexit, obviously, mysteriously, has no reach. Or the contextless programmes which depict “hard working” police perennially chasing “unemployable” individuals in stolen fast cars along busy urban roads. Or private investigators door-stepping “benefit cheats” in some red bricked town in England where everyone is either a slum landlord or a troublesome tenant. All this aspiration and angst, pessimism and prejudiced dished up as docu-drama and reality TV is as if the Great British Brexit Bake Off sips warm beer down in the “Dog and Truncheon” where Mary does Jamie and they all do us all in, in the end, amen.

To hear and see people lying in the name of fear (like Belikov, like all governments), to witness entire nations destroying their humanity, their future, and then to be called a spy, a fool, an enemy for pointing it out or even for putting up with it, is the lot of the writer, the artist, the active citizen, the voice of dissent in this brave new century. The result is that the individual is too frightened to step out of the case and into the fresh air of the public domain and declare that they are on the side of the honest, the brave and the free, because they know they will be buckled financially, professionally, even socially if they do. So we have a land of Belikovs’, of men and women who keep their ideas and their ideals hidden away in a case. They are terrified to think it all might lead if they open the case and give free reign to their humanity, as Chekhov so bravely did.

In the Highlands and Islands we do not need an “enterprise company” or a “skills review”. We need the social poetry of a civic revolution where justice and equity is the measure of our land, not the subsidised acres “belonging” to Press Barons and City of London Dukes, or the length of the runway used to ship out stolen uranium.

©George Gunn 2016

Comments (11)

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  1. Sandy Watson says:

    I suppose you have to start somewhere if you’re setting out to change the whole world.

    Until a better proposal is put forward for ‘economic development’ I suggest that H&I is better to have HIE than not, especially HIE’s ‘strengthening communities’ strand. Scottish Enterprise does not have (or want?) that strand and many/most communities outside H&I see that as a disadvantage.

    1. George Gunn says:

      I agree, Sandy, and it is the community which concerns me. Big business has never strengthened anything in the Highlands and Islands. We need to build a broader economic and cultural matrix which sustains, encourages and even surprises people.

  2. Sandy Watson says:

    Best to consider social, environmental and economic together and at the same time instead of the usual assumption that economic investment is enough.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on, Sandy! Our development agencies need a strong social, environmental and economic perspective and they need to be fully aligned with the land reform and community empowerment agendas.

  3. Drew says:

    We don’t have an agricultural tax base in the Highlands that is capable of funding infrastructural improvements which might interest inward investment. No oil or coal, few people per sq mile and an economy heavily dependent on the public sector. HIE/HIDB provides a regional development process that made headway in its first 40 years ( to name a few, Ballachulish, Kyleschu, Skye and Kessock bridges, UHI, Island ro-ro ferries, leisure sailing, renewable energy and more recently telecoms) but has been stripped of its power and staff since 2007 when the SNP saw it as a distraction to a United Scotland. If HIE is not returned to its original task of providing a route map to growth through infrastructure in H&I we will be set back years and the rest of the U.K. will pay for it in growing public sector dependency.

  4. w.b.robertson says:

    this debate raged 50 years ago when Willie Ross, Labour`s shadow scotish secy at the time, went round the country promising that the HDB would be set up to lead the renaissance. It certainly created jobs for civil servants in Inverness and, in fairness, helped promote many welcoming projects. But he would not sanction annoying the lairds by tackling the use of land. And today the braveheart SG likewise refuses to bell the same cat.

  5. Crubag says:

    HIE has become rather complacent with the “success” of Inverness. Lots of jobs and new houses but rather too much strip development for my taste.

    It helps the Highlands economic stats, but if you subtracted it, how well would the rest of H&I be doing?

    There’s also been friction with SE over renewable sources, but I wouldn’the want to lose the local perspective. Mind you, I think that about policing and local government.

  6. Graeme Purves says:

    I think both of our enterprise agencies disappeared down the rabbit hole of corporate management speak some time ago. Rather than some “enterprise and skills review”, we need a return to the vision and social and environmental commitment which animated both the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Scottish Development Agency in their early years. And both agencies need to recover a spatial perspective and start thinking again about the geography of development. Rather that doing away with HIE, we should be thinking about setting up an agency with a similar social remit for the Southern Uplands. Is any attempt being made to connect thinking about the future of our enterprise/development agencies to the land reform and community empowerment agendas?

    1. Crubag says:

      HIE already handles some if the funding for rural trust purchases.

      The new Land Reform Act does mean that businesses will have to consult local communities on their plans.

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        …which is all good as far as it goes.

  7. Cathie Thomson says:

    Makes me feel sane to read this !I also never shop in Tescos remember Lady
    Porter .I am horrified about the Uranium !

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