Orcadian Column, 10 August 2023

11 Aug 2023

Sanday got Show Week off to a promising start last Friday. Despite a chill in the air it was a fine day, encouraging locals and visitors to turn out in decent numbers, which was good to see. After all, not so long ago, there seemed genuine concern about the future of the smaller shows with dwindling entries and ageing exhibitors.

Perhaps that existential threat focused minds but certainly Sanday boasted healthy competition in both cattle and sheep sections, with plenty of young handlers proudly parading their animals around the ring. Long may that continue.

And the shows, including the larger ones, are so important for rural and island communities. They provide a gathering place where folks can catch up, exchange gossip and generally put the world to rights. Post-Covid, such opportunities feel more vital than ever.

While conversation out in Sanday roamed far and wide, the future Agriculture Bill was a topic on the minds of most, as it will be at showparks around the county this week. A continued lack of detail about the Scottish Government’s intentions is certainly making it difficult for businesses to plan ahead, while fears remain that new regulation and funding may not take account of specific island needs. These are concerns that Ministers must address, and quickly.

The urgent need for new ferries was also a common refrain north of the Galt. These lifeline services are on the edge right now with new investment long overdue. I’m due to meet the Transport Minister, Fiona Hyslop when she is in Orkney next week for a Ferries Taskforce meeting. I will remind her that having established the taskforce amidst much fanfare back in January, SNP Ministers have shown little interest ever since. This is only the second meeting of the Taskforce and Ms Hyslop has her work cut out persuading islanders that her government is remotely serious about finding a way forward to allow the procurement of new vessels.

Unusually for Show Week, I will be in Edinburgh briefly for a couple of events during the three-day Festival of Politics taking place in the Scottish Parliament. This eclectic mix of talks, debates and Q&As has been growing in popularity and I’m looking forward to chairing an In Conversation with Dame Evelynn Glennie as well as a panel discussion on How to Disagree Agreeably, something that appears ever more difficult in the context of our increasingly polarised political and public discourse.

With each side armed with ‘alternative facts’, debates often involve precious little listening while those holding different views are now seen as ‘enemies’. Social media, in particular, can feel like a very angry place.

And this can have serious consequences, as the murders of former MPs, Jo Cox and Sir David Amess attest. Indeed, it was hard not to be reminded of those horrific events watching TV images of Greenpeace protestors perched on the roof of the Prime Minister’s home last week.

It’s wrong, I accept, to draw too many parallels, but naïve to ignore them entirely. The right to protest, of course, must always be robustly protected, but just because you feel you have right on your side doesn’t mean there aren’t responsibilities that come with that right to protest.

For example, halting a cycle race between Edinburgh and Glasgow may feel like an odd target for environmental protestors, but more importantly it posed a real risk to the safety of riders and members of the public. Meantime, spraying the Scottish Parliament with red paint in indignation at a decision and acquiescence by the UK and Scottish Governments respectively shows a spectacular ignorance of the constitutional roles of parliament and government in this country or an inability to find St Andrews House or Bute House on a map.

Both incidents come in a week that also saw the UK’s first Green parliamentarian, Robin Harper announce his departure from the party. Echoing concerns raised previously by former Green MSP, Andy Wightman about a lack of tolerance, Mr Harper said his party had ‘lost the plot’. Certainly, with widespread agreement on the need for a just transition to tackle the climate emergency, it seems that some find it hard even to agree agreeably.