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 writerHighlands 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,
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.