The Same Old Selfish Quest: FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT

This is a time when the outworn old world prejudices are being recast and made young again. Those who wrestle to gain position to represent us, the people, in the immediate future in truth belong to the distant past. It is why they appear so familiar, palpable, frightening and ugly. Their story is the same old lie. Their motive the same old selfish quest.

The stories they tell us do not make sense. They never did. Now they take on the gruesome timbre of incomprehensible babble. On the TV they squawk and gurgle repeating their half formulated mantras of “Get Brexit done”, or “Britain deserves better”, goaded on by their courtiers disguised as journalists. If Scotland’s slow awakening from its Unionist sleep has revealed anything to the Scottish people it is that the world is an increasingly dangerous place and our place within it ever more exposed. The English novelist John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) in an interview he gave last October put it succinctly,

“Politicians love chaos. Don’t ever think otherwise. It gives them authority, and it gives them power. It gives them profile. The idea that they’ll fix it for you.” (11th October, The Guardian).

In his new novel Agent Running In The Field, which is a portrait of Nat, a half-Scots half-Russian career spy whose final assignment goes horribly awry in the margins of Brexit, the novelist goes further,

“It is my considered opinion,” one of the characters declares to Nat, “that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.” (from Agent Running In The Field, Viking Penguin)

These words swam around my mind like restless fish earlier this week when I attended a presentation in The Melness community hall about the proposed “Space Hub”, which will be a rocket launch pad to send satellites into Earth orbit, to be built on the stunning A’ Mhòine peninsula in North Sutherland. A’ Mhòine, with Loch Eriboll to the West and the Kyle of Tongue to the East, faces out into the Atlantic with Whiten Head at it North West point, Beinn Hutig directly to the East of that; to the South West towers Beinn Hòb and to the South East, that queen of mountains, Beinn Laghail. A’ Mhòine, which means “the peat moss” is without doubt one of the most beautiful places in Scotland and is part of the Northern periphery of the great blanket peat bog, the last of its kind in Europe.

The area, which has known human settlement for over 6,000 years, has been traditionally starved of investment by successive UK and Scottish governments, with what infrastructural upgrades as there have been over the last twenty years, such as roads and harbours, being financed by the EU. It is delusional to think that any UK government will fill the investment hole left by withdrawal from the EU or that any pre-independence Scottish government, out-with Europe, will have the cash wherewithal to sufficiently meet the social challenges which generations of neglect have left as a legacy for the local population.

The great American writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote that, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” This sums up the eye-watering financial arithmetic of the North Sutherland “Space Hub” very well. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who are facilitating the project, revealed earlier this year a funding package of £17.3million for the scheme, including £2.5million from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and £9.8million from HIE itself. According to their “Preparing For Launch” document HIE tell us that the two leading launch service providers – Lockheed Martin and Orbex – will receive £23.5 million and £5.5 million respectively from the UKSA. That comes to a staggering £35.3 million to “develop activities in Sutherland”. Poor housing, shrinking social services and poverty are political choices not an act of nature. £35.3 million spent by any government alleviating these in North Sutherland, at present, is a forlorn hope.

The HIE document describes Lockheed Martin as “a global aerospace company” and Orbex as “a UK-based orbital launch services company”.

Orbex may be “UK-based” (in Forres) but they also have a major operation in Denmark and Germany and their main office is in Copenhagen. Their representatives in the Melness community hall were Danish – as well as being pleasant, congenial and sincere. When I asked them about what the satellites their rocket would be delivering to outer space – one launch a month is the proposed schedule – are be used for, their answer was “Scientific”. However I got the impression that Orbex are at least a company who are what they say they are. They make the 18 tonne rocket which will stand 19 metres tall and they will make that, mostly, in Forres. I asked them about the role of Lockheed Martin. They politely said they did not know anything about that. Which I found surprising. I asked the HIE representative in the hall the same question. She was even more opaque. I suggested to her that to call Lockheed Martin “a global aerospace company” was a bit disingenuous considering they are the biggest arms manufacturer on the planet and represent about one third of the US military–industrial complex, a beast so feared by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his Farewell Address to the Nation in 1961 he said, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.”

It is strange to think of these words in Melness, but there was no-one in the hall from Lockheed Martin to ask about any of this. So I asked the HIE representative  just why it was that HIE was brokering a deal with the UKSA which would give £23.5 million of British taxpayers money to a US based company, the world’s biggest arms manufacturer, which last year had total assets valued at $44.87 billion? The answer is 40 jobs, or 400 jobs depending on what you believe. HIE assures the world that these will be “40 new high quality jobs in the immediate Sutherland area”. They also claim that within five years of opening the “Space Hub” “will have the capacity to support 400 new jobs throughout the wider Highlands and Islands.” We are asked to have faith but as the Bard of the Deep South has reminded us, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” HIE’s big brother, Scottish Enterprise, have shown Lockheed Martin similar largesse by recently awarding the military giant £176,615 for “business improvement, innovation, marketing and organisational development”. I am sure they appreciate this investment in Yemen and Syria.

It could be argued that the North Sutherland “Space Hub on A’ Mhòine is a relatively harmless project, but I could not help thinking, the more I watched the people in the Melness hall looking at the presentational panels and at the short promotional film, that we have been here before. In the 1950’s there were similar presentations all over the North of Scotland by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) when they were making the case for siting their experimental and prototype fast nuclear reactors at Dounreay on the North Caithness coast. Then, again, the argument for the project hinged on jobs. As well as electricity which would be so plentiful it would be free. If we did not agree to the UKAEA’s plans Caithness would become an economic wilderness, everyone would leave and the place would be dead. That was a lie then just as much as the subsequent reliance on a single, dubious industry has been proven, historically, to be a major mistake. The focus on Dounreay meant that no-one was focussing on economic diversification, until it was too late. Now with all the economic eggs in the Dounreay decommissioning basket agencies like HIE are searching around for the next big thing. Everything they look at is seen through the prism of Dounreay. It is why the HIE spokesperson I met has been seconded from Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) as have other senior management players in the “Space Hub” project.

The “Space Hub” is just another example of looking at the social and economic challenges facing the North Highlands exactly the wrong way round. Big is not good. Big is doomed to fail, eventually. Dounreay was big and Dounreay has been a failure. It’s legacy is both economically and environmentally toxic. Caithness and North Sutherland are enduring depopulation and underinvestment not because of what was done at Dounreay but was not done everywhere else in the North because of Dounreay. Now the infrastructure is crumbling and the young and economically active are voting with their feet. It is the only “democracy” on offer. No-one voted for Dounreay.

The Melness Crofters Estate, who own the land the proposed “Space Hub” will be built upon, may yet change their minds about it all because the 80 or so crofters are not in agreement. Local opinion is that there is 60/40 split, for and against. Crofter George Wyper, 72, who is a director, has voiced his personal opposition to the project, questioning the legality of using land which is subject to crofting rights. He recently told the press,

“There is quite a split in the community and a lot of bad feeling about this. There has been no proper public consultation and the estate board has not yet voted on the matter. It could go to the Scottish Land Court, which could take years to resolve.”

The 75-year lease for the land earmarked for the development is provisional on gaining planning permission from Highland Council. There is no formal agreement as yet. If there are any problems it will be referred to the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government is not mentioned once in any of the literature about the North Sutherland “Space Hub” which, I think, is significant.

There has also emerged the Campaign group Protect The Mhoine – A’ Mhòine –  (PTM) – Dìon am Mhòine – set up to oppose the “ambitious proposals”. Chairman John Williams said: “Our aim is to protect this area from inappropriate development.” He said Sutherland was “unsuitable” for a spaceport as it would destroy parts of the environment – including peat bogs – wildlife, archaeology and roads. He also questioned the safety of rockets being launched from mainland Scotland, as they will pass over other land masses including Orkney and Shetland as well as oil fields. Mr Williams added: “There will also be noise from this, as well as a loss of privacy and amenity.”

Viewing the world through the prism of Dounreay does suggest that there is an institutional narcissism as far as the “Space Hub” is concerned: HIE only see what they want to see. It seems to me to that the curious fate of the HIE is to demonstrate to the local population of the Far North how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. What I see when I go to A’ Mhòine peninsula is “boglach mòr na gaoithe”, or “the great bog of the winds”. The Royals Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have as their slogan for their Forsinard estate “Making a home for nature”. Very noble. But my heart cries out for another slogan: what is wrong with “Making a home for people”? What the RSPB call the “Flow Country” in truth is “boglach mòr nan daoine”, or “the great bog of the people”, for it is people that have shaped and cared for this landscape since the Caledonian Forest turned into the bog some 8,000 years ago. It is people this northern landscape craves. It is empty because of history. We have to learn from it, not repeat it.

But nothing stays the same. The land, to borrow Nan Shepherd’s wonderful verb “bristles”; it morphs and causes metamorphosis. The movement of tectonic plates, erosion and the ever-busy hand of humanity sees to that. We cannot afford the paternalism which a “Space Hub” represents. In reality, historically, the financial package put together by HIE amounts to no more than beads and feathers. Politically we cannot afford anymore paternalistic and “incomprehensible babble” from politicians or ill thought out big schemes in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. On the 12th of December we can, in Scotland at least, put an end the same old selfish quest of Britain’s ruling elite. We can embark on a quest of our own: to create a just and working democratic country. No-one can fix anything for us except ourselves and we won’t need a rocket for that.

Comments (20)

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  1. Wayne Brown says:

    I largely agree with the main thrust of the article, but then there’s this –

    ‘ It is people this northern landscape craves. It is empty because of history.’

    What’s wrong with land empty of humans. Here’s Mr Hopkins on the subject –

    What would the world be, once bereft
    Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
    O let them be left, wildness and wet;
    Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

    ( https://www.bartleby.com/122/33.html )

    I saw recently an article about providing hill gravel tracks for cyclists, to encourage tourism in the Highlands. Super.

    It occurred to me, a long time ago (decades) that it would be a good idea to make some places more difficult to reach, rather than easier. Of course there’s always the law of unintended consequences. It’s possible it might just encourage the world’s challenged types. So there’d be thoosants o’ them traipsin’ up the glen, suitably guided by Lonely Planet*, an entrepreneur would set up a cafe – – – OK forget it!

    * A ferrous, falsely feral title, if ever there was one.

    1. Wul says:

      “What’s wrong with land empty of humans.”

      One problem is that when humans have no land, they have no power or agency. No way to feed themselves, take shelter, socialise, raise a family, start a business…..without paying The Maister his rent.

      Result: A world run by rentiers, for rentiers.

      Small scale, low-impact human habitation can lead to an increase in bio-diversity: Especially if compared to empty grouse moors, stalking estates or agribusiness monoculture deserts.

      1. Wayne Brown says:

        And here I was thinking it would do no harm to leave the odd bit of land free of human influence.

        Wrong again . Story of my life.

        Mr Hopkins can keep his wildness and wet. I prefer my nice dry living room, no flora or fauna allowed – except for the cat.

        1. Wul says:

          I didn’t say you were wrong Wayne. You might be right.

          There’s plenty of land in Scotland free of humans, but very little free of human influence.

          Much of it is a playground for people who shoot deer and grouse, dressed up in Victorian costume and playing at Big Houses.

          Their vast playground is kept artificially bereft of any other creatures (including humans) except the “game” and is no more than a “wet-desert”, as ecologist Frank Fraser Darling called it. There is more wildlife in my local council park.

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    Superb article.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    George
    Just when we weren’t waiting for one Space Port, two come along.
    I was in North Uist this summer to discover they have an application for their own Space Port, providing jobs too. In this area of outstanding natural beauty and wildlife the Council are trying to avoid even having an Environmental Impact Survey and report by splitting their appliacation into three smaller ones which they say do no merit a survey. The fact that one of the Councillors is employed by and a shareholder in Qinetic one of the partners in this escapade is seemingly secondary.
    Rockets Galore all over again, with the same srereotypical cooncillors.

  4. Derek Henry says:

    “with what infrastructural upgrades as there have been over the last twenty years, such as roads and harbours, being financed by the EU”

    “It is delusional to think that any UK government will fill the investment hole left by withdrawal from the EU or that any pre-independence Scottish government, out-with Europe, will have the cash wherewithal to sufficiently meet the social challenges which generations of neglect have left as a legacy for the local population.”

    Ha hilarious !

    What is delusional is you think there is a certain amount of currency in a field somewhere and when it runs out that is it. Or their is some huge shed on the Isle Of Wight that holds our taxes for future use.

    This is the mess you get yourself into when you do not understand how it works.

    A government deficit is when you spend more than you take in tax. You have to do that so that households and business can save the currency. So just by sheer arithmetic that field or shed would have been empty over 300 years ago.

    I would love to see the accounting on the government accounts of how the EU paid for these things. We send them £”s they exchange them for Euro’s then send them back and exchange them for £’ s . The wizard of OZ would be very proud.

    I know how it works but you won’t get it.

    Of course why you do not run government surpluses unless the economy is at full tilt and there are inflationary pressures everywhere. Why we have only run 3 small budget surpluses since the 1950’s every time you do the economy falters. Needing larger budget deficits afterwards.

    https://d3fy651gv2fhd3.cloudfront.net/charts/united-kingdom-government-budget@2x.png?s=wcsdgbr&v=201911051528V20191105&d1=19191222

    So here is a question for you George. I’ll play along and agree the EU credited bank accounts with Euro’s to pay for these things.

    If the ECB credited bank accounts and there was enough skills and real resources to absorb the EU spending why can’t

    a) The BOE using the £ do the same ?

    b) The new Scottish central bank with the new Scottish currency do the same ?

    For example George just to get the old grey matter working.

    We have left the EU and Scotland is independent we have our own currency and let’s say we have to find 100 billion of funding for projects supposedly the ECB funded with Euro’ s. Yes, I’m still laughing but I will play along.

    The Scottish treasury does its analysis. Sees that there are enough skills and real resources to absorb the 100 billion to complete the so called EU projects. So it instructs the Scottish central bank to start crediting reserve accounts of the commercial banks who in turn credit Scottish household and business current accounts.

    Job done George. The 100 billion is neither in a field of a huge shed. The new Scottish central bank just changed numbers up on a spreadsheet.

    So the Scottish treasury has put 100 billion into the Scottish economy via keystrokes on a computer keyboard. It now flows around the Scottish economy in huge spending chains. As everyone’s spending is someone else’s income and as soon as it becomes income it is taxed. Taxed away back to the reserve accounts where it started.

    Spent first collected taxes later.

    The results are in George they put 100 billion in and taxed 80 billion out when everyone started to spend their income.

    So what does this mean ?

    It means the Scottish treasury is running a 20 billion deficit. The Scottish private sector households and business are holding a 20 billion surplus to the penny.

    So where did this 20 billion surplus come from that households and business now enjoy ?

    The 100 billion spent of course. Some people decided to save some of their income instead of spend all of it. A simple accounting fact.

    The Scottish budget deficit is the private sector surplus and the Scottish national debt is some of that surplus moved into Scottish bonds over time to earn interest on our savings. Mainly our pensions.

    Since an Indy Scotland issues both currency and bonds and can set any rate it chooses on the bonds. Then their is no threat of bankruptcy or running out of the currency.

    1. Derek Henry says:

      By the way George.

      When they taxed the 80 billion out it did not go anywhere. They used to just burn it now they shred it and just change the number down on the 100 billion in the spreadsheet.

      Nobody gains anything to be used later.

      Part 1

      http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2014/01/diagrams-dollars-modern-money-illustrated-part-1.html

      Part 2

      http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2014/01/diagrams-dollars-modern-money-illustrated-part-2.html

  5. Wul says:

    Nothing about us, without us, is really for us.

    £35.5m for 40 jobs? That’s 35 years worth of taxpayers’ cash up front, at our average UK wage. How impressively long-sited HIE can be! Are they giving out 35-year, up front grants for any other Highland infrastructure developments?

    1. Derek Henry says:

      No such thing as tax payers money.

      Only a fool would believe government have to collect money from you so they can spend.

      Governments spend then collect the tax. We are no longer on the gold standard.

      It is written in the front of every note where YOU get your money from that allows you to pay your taxes.

      YOUR taxes get destroyed in the overnight interbank market so that the BOE can hit its overnight interest rate. They do not get stored for future use.

      http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=9281

  6. Wul says:

    How many of us have had the experience of a perfectly still, perfectly beautiful day in the Highlands being torn to shreds by the shriek of low-flying fighter jets overhead? It always made my kids cry, which I felt was the appropriate reaction.

    The creepy, alienating juxtaposition of natural beauty and high-tech death machine. Fighter jets, bomb-ranges, plutonium factories, nuclear submarines, ICBMs: “Investment in Scotland” and “Job Creation”. More of this…or less of this?

  7. Derek Henry says:

    This is how it works George.

    No politics, no ideology just simple T accounts.

    Assets on one side

    Liabilities on the other side

    Of the balance sheet.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByfO_uuldCRwU1hNSWxMaGFIbHM/view

  8. This came to us via the author …

    Dear George,

    I read your recent article for Bella Caledonia with interest.

    I genuinely welcome such thoughtful contributions to the discussion about the proposals to create a spaceport in Sutherland.

    If I may, I would like to point out one item of fact that I felt needed a minor correction.

    You stated:

    “Orbex may be “UK-based” (in Forres) but they also have a major operation in Denmark and Germany and their main office is in Copenhagen. Their representatives in the Melness community hall were Danish – as well as being pleasant, congenial and sincere.”

    The vast bulk of our assets, resources and staff are based in the UK. We currently employ 40 people directly in the UK on various aspects of the project, many of them new jobs created in the Highlands region over the last 12 months at Forres, where we purchased our main facility with our own money.

    In contrast, while we do have facilities in Denmark, we employ only 6 people there. (I believe you met almost all of them in Melness this week although there were also 4 British/Scottish staff – thank you for the kind comments on their sincerity, that was greatly appreciated.) The Danish entity is a subsidiary of the UK entity and was created about 1.5 years after we started the UK company.

    Hence, my only suggestion for a small correction would be to reconsider the statements that our “main office” is in. Denmark, which is not accurate, or that we have a “major operation” there, which again, in proportion, is not accurate. Would you consider amending those passages to reflect the facts, taking me at my word?

    Otherwise I respect your opinion and welcome your serious and thoughtful contribution.

    Regards

    Chris Larmour
    CEO
    Orbex

    1. David Dowie says:

      I am frequently in that industrial estate and there are rarely more than half a dozen cars in your car park so either you operate a cycle to work scheme or your suggestion that ‘most’ of those 40 jobs created have been created in Forres is misleading.
      Trying to fool the Scottish people won’t go down well for you. Just be honest and transparent if you want to gain the trust of locals, who are already viewing you with suspicion.

  9. George Gunn says:

    It is always good to be put right on a mistake. He also pointed it out in good grace. I always try to be as accurate as possible. But being human is a flawed business. It was interesting, also, to read the piece about the proposed space hub on Uist, published here on the same day!

    1. Richard Fotheringham says:

      You were on the right track though George. The UK building in Forres was only opened recently, so it looks like the Orbex operation was working out of Germany/Denmark prior to that. The directors are all based in German and Denmark, so that would tie-in with that.
      No idea why they are so eager to distance themselves from their German and Danish origins. It’s an odd position to take.

  10. Richard Fotheringham says:

    Excellent article.
    Quite astonishing that the UK government would give cash to a US military supplier and a relatively unknown and apparently secretive Danish/German organisation to build a space setup in Scotland. Something doesn’t smell right.

    https://brexittoday.news.blog/2019/05/28/orbex-space-business-draw-more-online-attention/

  11. Richard Fotheringham says:

    An excellent article. Very much aligned with my own views on this.
    Whilst I think it’s great for Scotland to get involved in Space, I do question why Lockheed Martin are the main recipients of this huge amount of funding.
    I also think there are probably better locations.

  12. John Laird says:

    Lockheed Martin: An American arms manufacturer, given control of building a rocket launch site in Scotland. Partners, HIE or Orbex “Do not know” what involvement Lockheed have. Not a single bit of info about Lockheed involvement other than to announce they have a wad of cash from UK Gov. All sounds pretty legit to me.

    Orbex: A German/Danish entity, appeared out of nowhere with a rocket engine 3D printed in Germany, Board of Directors based in Germany/Denmark, A rocket manufactured in Germany. Who is this Larmour character? LinkedIn suggests he disappeared off the planet for most of his adult life which would suggest a military background. All sounds legit!

    Doesn’t sound like a military operation at all!

    Maybe Bella Caledonia can ask them?

    1. Will do. I pointed out these concerns before only to be laughed at, ‘jobs’ you see.

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