Of all the countries that make up the British Isles, the Isle of Man (Eillan Vannin) tends to get overlooked. Situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, the Isle of Man somehow seems to drop off the radar when it comes to news and current affairs.
Which is a pity.
Not only is it a beautiful island – home to some 75,000 people – with its own Gaelic language and culture and some amazingly well working Victorian trams and trains – it also has one of the world’s oldest Parliaments, the Tynwald, founded in the 10thC. All of which made Diana and I curious to visit.
We were lucky enough to be there during the Manx General Election (held every five years) for the election of members to the House of Keys – their equivalent of the House of Commons.
Constitutionally, the island’s situation is similar to that of the Channel Islands. It came to the English crown back in the 14thC as part payment of a gambling debt, and it preserves its link to the crown through the Queen as Head of State and her Island Governor (largely a ceremonial role, but also a constitutional ‘long stop’).
Foreign Affairs and Defence are contracted out to the Westminster Parliament, but all other matters are decided locally. Most importantly, the island is not in the EU.
The Tynwald is not just a museum piece, but very much a thriving parliamentary democracy; one which gives the Manx people a distinct sense of nationhood. Do not make the mistake that I did, of referring to Britain as ‘the mainland’; the islanders do not see themselves as being an offshore province of anywhere, but a separate country of their own. Britain is usually referred to as ‘over there’ or ‘the other island’. Nonetheless links with Britain remain strong, as evidenced in the beautifully kept war memorials around the island, remembering those Manx citizens who have given their lives serving the British Crown.
Relations with the UK government are another matter.
Over half the population think relations with the UK government have got worse over the last 3 years, with only 12% thinking they have improved. With some justification, the UK government is regarded with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
The recent ‘VAT agreement’ between the IoM and Westminster has meant large amounts of money the Tynwald government thought it had, must be handed over to Britain instead, leaving a £90mn shortfall in the islands budget over the next 5 years. Since the Manx constitution prohibits it from going into debt, or sacrificing its hard earned capital reserves (yes, it has a budget surplus !), some cuts in public spending will have to be made. Nearly 30% of the islanders depend on the Tynwald government in some form for their livelihood, so hard choices lie ahead.
Then there is the recent decision by Westminster to award Centrica the right to develop a large field of wind turbines adjacent to Manx territorial waters, a decision which will mean even longer, rougher ferry crossings from Liverpool and Heysham.
Tax remains a thorny issue and lies at the root of much of the mistrust between the island’s government and Westminster. The island’s flat tax policy and generous terms for foreign investors have underpinned its wealth, much to the fury of the ‘tax and waste’ levellers in Westminster and Brussels, who resolutely refuse to understand that 20% of £5bn brings in a lot more revenue than 50% of nothing.
The island’s continuing prosperity as a tax refuge is a standing rebuke to much that Westminster and Brussels holds dear and for this reason, they would love dearly to snuff it out.
To an outsider, the most curious thing about Manx elections is its general lack of party politics or ideological dogma. Nearly all candidates identify themselves as Independents, perhaps judging that a party label might be a liability in an island where most people are elected on the basis of their character, knowledge, experience and ideas.
When asked by a local newspaper which UK party they would support, most said ‘not applicable’, ‘not interested’ or ‘not relevant’… although one candidate did identify himself as a supporter of UKIP!
We saw some imaginative campaigning ideas; one candidate was seen walking through Ramsey High Street in his own printed sweat shirt bearing his name in bold and the text ‘Please Stop Me And Ask Me A Question’.
The exception were the candidates of the ‘Liberal Vannin’ party, whose candidate manifestos all bore the yellow squawking bird and said the same thing, and whose bright yellow ‘battle bus’ was much in evidence. Further evidence of LibDem affiliations came from their ‘7-Point Action Plan’ for the island, which on closer inspection turned out to contain only 6 points. Nevertheless, come election day Liberal Vannin managed to win 2 out of the 24 seats available.
Elsewhere four government ministers lost their seats and three others were replaced by new faces. Perhaps signifying a general desire for change. It seems the curse of career politicians isn’t confined to Britain. Amongst the Manx voters, and in the local press, there were frequent grumbles about Tynwald member’s perks such as free petrol and car parking, and the amount of income they derive from rents.
However there is much to admire about the Isle of Man.
As an island of popular democracy and limited government, it runs contrary to much of what the UK government represents, but is very much in tune with UKIP’s ideals. The island‘s beautiful landscapes haven’t been disfigured by hideous swathes of wind turbines, for the simple reason their government doesn’t give developers taxpayers money to build them.
Instead, a significant (8% and growing) proportion of the islands energy is generated by household waste incineration (no landfill), in a brand new, clean, ‘state of the art’ facility on the outskirts of Douglas, which has no more visual impact than a small branch of B & Q.
The splendid 15 mile steam railway to Port Erin (built in 1874) runs every hour and chuffs out enough CO2 to give your typical greenie an apoplectic fit. You can admire the scenery in an open sided carriage on the 21 mile Victorian cliff railway from Douglas to Ramsey, without having to be belted, trussed and lectured throughout your journey by Health and Safety officials.
All these things are precious and long may they continue!