Why the Orkney Islands feel more European than Manchester

10 Aug 2016

Brexit presents a stark message: the public want change. Or do they? The perception that Middle England (definition as used here being the rest of England outside London and its commuter belt) does not benefit from the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has widely been proven false: there are many EU development fund schemes that provide capital investment across the country, from Northumberland to inner-city Leeds to rural Wales. It must, therefore, be asked, what went wrong?


Perhaps the roots of the problem can be traced back to Thatcherism and the associated scorched earth policies of de-industrialisation. While an undeniably necessary process, its poor and inhumane management forced many into poverty and destroyed the pride of many a Middle-English mining town. The failure to provide the investment to retrain the long-term unemployed and create new industries in those areas solely reliant on the now-defunct mining sector could now be regretted for yet more generations to come.


Equally affected by Thatcherism, Scotland on the other hand has regained some of its prosperity through the work of the Holyrood parliament. It has embarked on its road to riches through the renewable energy and oil sectors, leaving Middle England behind in a situation not dissimilar to the dustbowl that was the American Midwest of the 1930s, which has now become the Rust Belt of modern US politics.


A trip through the UK and its fellow EU member states reveals some startling contrasts and similarities in the most unlikely of places. London is logically considered and feels like an integrated European city (and voted as such in the referendum). However, travel north on a rail system that lacks the most basic modern European management theories and investment standards, and the landscape changes starkly. Here, in Middle England, Europe is still treated as ‘the mainland’, ‘the continent’ or ‘the others’, places and peoples far removed from current Middle English society.


The European institutions, while physically closer than they are to the majority of EU member states (some 1800 miles lie between Brussels and Cyprus), feel irrelevant, even threatening. They threaten the status quo of a landscape unchanged (for the worse) since Thatcher’s days. Disembark a creaking railbus at Leeds’ central station, the quality of the train barely usurping that of an ancient Ukrainian wagon, the tracks covered in sewage discharged from train toilets lacking retention tanks, and there is a distinct lack of one thing: the EU flag. Step off an equally creaky German train in Essen or Dortmund, both very similar to Leeds economically – former mining cities in the Rhine valley - and you cannot miss the presence of the little blue flag.


Even in pro-European western Ukraine, not yet part of the Union, the EU is everywhere. There is a pride in a European system capable of ironing out the creases left behind by incompetent state government.


Get on an aging Intercity 125 (of 1970’s vintage) heading north of the Scottish border and the situation completely changes. A change most apparent at the outermost reaches of British civilisation – the Orkney Islands. Although the lack of an EU flag remains apparent, the islands are booming and feel incredibly European. Bear in mind that the same islands have suffered from a huge population decline of up to 70% over the last 300 years, leaving what should be by comparison to Middle England a collection of treeless windswept rocks slowly succumbing to the harsh sub-arctic Atlantic weather. These far-flung northern isles should, surely, the most insular communities in the United Kingdom. The opposite, is, however, the case. The islands feel more integrated into European society than almost anywhere else in Britain, the Orcadian flag (of Scandinavian origin) is flown everywhere and there is a distinctly Nordic feel. Southern Norway is, after all, closer than southern Scotland.


The public transport network is comparatively fantastic with council- and privately-run ferries and air services linking the scattered population of 18,000 with the Scottish mainland and other islands (notably Shetland) with a frequency that would astonish any Middle Englander.


Hate crimes are becoming the norm across the country with people being chastised and abused for not speaking English on the streets of a country renowned for its multiculturalism. How is it therefore possible for the Norwegian bible in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, to remain on display, a proud symbol of Orcadian nationality within a European community?


This distinct difference in attitudes must lie in the differing governing styles of Holyrood and Westminster: one has chosen to fully embrace the European ideals of nationality over statehood, the other remains detatched from the rest of the country.


The Scottish government have invested heavily in nationwide infrastructure, having even recently purchased two small planes to replace aging models on the outer isles services from Glasgow. In a similar time period, the A1 has been widened and TransPennine ‘Express’ received a long overdue and hopelessly inadequate fleet renewal. This is supposedly sufficient for an area with a population probably 2 or 3 times that of Scotland.


Neglect is most probably the reason why Middle England is decaying, a notion only likely to get worse now it is leaving the European Union. The EU, after all, provided a significant portion of the funds invested into projects such as Sheffield’s supertram. Similar sized cities in Europe would probably have a large underground network and regular links to cities across the continent: Sheffield’s mainline rail link to London has yet to be electrified and the main route to Manchester, linking two of the biggest cities in the North, has yet to be made into a dual carriageway.


Thus we arrive at the reason why middle England has been ostracised from European society, even by British standards: a chronic lack of investment from a corrupt Westminster government apparently more concerned with making their colleagues peers.


This has left Middle England in a European society of 1980’s with one important difference: it has been left high and dry without the jobs, services and infrastructure investment of this decade of the previous century. The watch has been stopped and now it is too late to restart it.


The desire for change in the status quo has been channelled into an anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric by those in the know, not wanting to end the system that feeds into their pockets. In light of such blatant manipulation, it is easy to see how the nations north of the Scottish border, be they Gaelic, Scottish, Orcadian or Shetlandic, have progressed along with the rest of Europe, despite the odds against them, leaving their southern cousins behind along with the still-decaying mills that line the trans-pennine railway.


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