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Lochaber may well have the worst rate of fuel poverty in Scotland, if not the UK and possibly Europe.
This is a situation which, given the area’s proximity to massive energy resources, well known broadcaster, journalist, author and independence campaigner Lesley Riddoch describes as beyond ridiculous and possibly criminal.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Lochaber Times ahead of her appearance at a pro-independence public meeting organised by the Yes Lochaber campaign group in Fort William last week, Ms Riddoch took Nordic countries as her example of how things can be different.
A self-professed lover of all things Nordic – she set up the policy group Nordic Horizons – she highlighted how small successful Nordic nations, some with with less energy resources than Scotland and with half their land mass inside the Arctic Circle, are still much better off than Scotland.
Asked what independence would mean for rural and remote areas like Lochaber, the Small Isles, the Western Isles or Skye, Ms Riddoch gave energy as a good example.
‘We are sitting here in an area with this incredible wealth of natural resources, particularly energy, yet places like Lochaber have the worst fuel poverty probably in Scotland, then in Britain and probably then in Europe’ she said.
‘And if not here, then you are competing with the Western Isles which is awash with energy. This is beyond ridiculous, almost criminal, because people die of hypothermia in Scotland.
‘Yet in Nordic counties, many of which have less in the way of natural resources, and with about half of their land mass in the Arctic, no-one dies of hypothermia.
‘But because energy is a reserved [to Westminster] issue, we have this ludicrous example of where you might for a while get money for a community energy scheme, so people like Applecross get off the mark, or people like the Garmony Hydro on Mull get off the mark, but then when other people think that’s a good idea and want to do something – bang! – the money’s gone, you’ve missed it.
‘Equally with the islands and no subsea connectors – 25 years after the campaign began. That’s the Western islands, Orkney and Shetland – probably the most energy rich islands in the northern hemisphere. Then you look at our neighbours and it makes you weep.’
Ms Riddoch says the bulk of the blame lies with the British Government’s obsession that nuclear power will ride to the rescue when it comes to security of energy supplies.
She added: ‘That’s fine and if you want to do that, you do that, but every time people think nuclear is coming to the rescue, marine energy doesn’t get developed, tidal energy doesn’t get developed, connectors to islands don’t get developed and the infrastructure the Highlands needs to deliver for Scotland does not get developed.’
For an example of what is possible, she does not pick on a large Nordic country such as Sweden or even one close to the same size in terms of land mass and population as Denmark, but the tiny Faroe Islands.
‘Look at the Faroes – a population of just 55,000. They have got tunnels connecting all the little islands, plus their population is growing, while the population of all the islands round here is in decline.
‘It has a very powerful devolved parliament and it is going for independence. That is confidence. Just look at these incredibly confident little nations like the Faroes. They are like Scotland in that they have an enormous sea state and pretty sizeable land masses.’
Exploring that theme further and why the Scots are perhaps not as confident a people as their Scandinavian neighbours, brings in the wider topic of independence.
‘I’ve spent 15 years and writing three books in an attempt to answer that very question,’ responds Ms Riddoch. ‘My opinion is that, essentially, it flows from feudalism. Practically no-one in Scotland two generations back owned diddly squat. No-one had security, everyone was beholden and looking over their shoulder and if you lived in council houses, it was an urban version of the same thing.
‘I think it worked its way through generations until people did not have enough experience of control of their own domain or feeling you could control your own domain.
‘And it takes skill to learn to be that second class. Not to talk back, keep your children under control, keep your horizon low. Once you’ve learned that skill set, you don’t easily lose it because no-one thinks you can change.
‘If you have to change, you lose the outlook of generations and it feels like disowning your own people.’
Ms Riddoch credits the community buy-out of the Isle of Eigg in 1997 as the major event which seismically altered her perception of what was possible.
She was a trustee of the buy-out campaign and said it showed her change is possible.
‘At first many thought it was hopeless, but watching those guys get to the stage where they all thought ‘we can do this’ changed my life.
‘I’ve now been there more than 100 times and they’re great friends. They’ve changed and they haven’t changed. Some things are not perfect but, my God, they have a world-leading off-grid electricity system when they used to be dependent on diesel generators.
‘Eigg is like a microcosm of what can happen when you have security and the confidence to let ideas happen.’
Asked if she detected an upswing in favour of independence on her travels round Scotland, Ms Riddoch says she definitely gets the feeling people have at least detached from belief in Westminster.
‘That doesn’t mean they have attached to independence necessarily but that is because there is no prospectus out there yet, so I think people are now in a bit of a betwixt and between situation, but one where nobody would give you a really long run for your money about wanting to be governed by Boris Johnson on any aspect of their lives and even if he goes the rest don’t look that tasty either,’ she added.
‘We’ve now got a pretty solid 50 per cent [in favour of independence] A lot of people will ask why only 50 per cent, but given there’s been no actual talk [from independence campaigns] for more than two years, I think that’s pretty amazing.
‘That level of support is now a self-generating one as a result. I think a lot of people will look at Nicola [First Minister Nicola Sturgeon] and her handling of the Covid crisis.
‘People come to decisions about people on a trust basis. I think the consistency of her appearances has contrasted with that of Westminster. The two governments were on parade, compared and contrasted, and that has never happened before on a big issue like this.
‘I think it has probably quietly changed a lot of people’s feelings on competence and trustworthiness. Of course, we are still left with the technical problem of how we get a referendum, but that question is not making anyone go home.
‘We have the tenacity to find a solution which will come.’
CAPTION: Lesley Riddoch is interviewed by Lochaber Times reporter Mark Entwistle prior to her appearance at an independence campaign event in Fort William’s Nevis Centre last week. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos
NO F08 Lesley Riddoch interview