Title picture: Morning Room, Lews Castle, 14 July 2016

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Europe

Things are beginning to look very frightening in Europe all of a sudden. 

France's president Francois Hollande wants quick Brexit talks now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, meaning there are divisions in Europe. Divisions and instability, caused by the massive influx of migrants from the east and south, leaving right-wing political parties in charge across the continent. Scotland, if it is granted another independence referendum, will break away from the UK.

Following the battering that American forces have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years, there is little appetite in the States to get embroiled in any further foreign adventures. The anti-Islam and anti-Latino hype will reach a crescendo if Trump gets elected, and the USA will turn its back on the rest of the world. Forgetting that the world will come to it, even if it doesn't want it anymore. If Trump gets in, he'll let the rest of the NATO alliance go to hell. That will have consequences in Europe, which relies on the American forces to really keep them safe.

Putin, already champing at the bit, will have no hesitation to reclaim the Baltic States, and experience little if any resistance in doing so. Neither will there be any resistance to his plans to expand westwards into Europe, if he so wishes. 

Donald Trump is an idiot, but a dangerous one. He is a salesman, not a politician. He has picked up a few ideas that he finds to appeal to people, and is very good at flogging them. Appealing to base sentiments of fear of strangers, anger against one particular group (Muslims), who are being held up as being to blame for all ills - where did we hear this all before? Cast your mind back 80 years, and you have your answer.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Lews Castle

Last Thursday, 14 July, I visited Lews Castle which has been opened to the public for the first time in many years. Since the 1980s, the Castle had lain empty and unused, and was slowly falling into disrepair. A few years ago, a £19 million refurbishment programme was started and after many delays, the Castle was opened today.

Lews Castle, the country mansion of erstwhile landowner Sir James Matheson, was built in the middle of the 19th century for £60,000, which equates to £7 million in today's money. His fortunes came from the opium trade with China, something that even sparked a war between China and Great Britain. Sir James is credited with spending £329,000 (about £40m now) on the island of Lewis, with a road building programme and 'improvement'. Sir James's memory is tarnished by assisting 1,771 islanders to leave for Canada, America and Australia. They were removed as unable to pay the rent. The 1851 diary of his chamberlain (we'd call John Munro Mackenzie a manager today) shows cold contempt for the crofters, cottars and others who were unable to keep up payments. Rather than improve their lot on the ground, they had to emigrate. And when things did not go according to plan, it all became rather a nuisance.

Lews Castle today is resplendent in its former glory, but the contrast with the lot of Matheson's tenantry in the 19th century is excruciatingly jarring. One islander whom I accompanied on this visit was moved to tears. The rooms I visited were mostly completely empty, with the exception of the Ball Room, where dining tables were set out. The Castle also has a cafe and a small shop.

In a separate, newly built wing, the Western Isles Museum is housed. It has most of the exhibits on show that were featured in the old premises on Francis Street, but has moved in the 21st century with audio-visual and interactive displays. Full marks for that.

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P7142440 P7142436 P7142432 P7142425
Six Lewis Chessmen are on permanent loan from the British Museum

P7142412 Morning Room
P7142407 Dining Room
P7142394 Library
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Ball Room
P7142376 P7142375 P7142371 Entrance Hall
P7142367 Store Room Cafe
Further pictures here

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Cameron, May and Corbyn

David Cameron is about to hand over to Theresa May as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Cameron was in office for just over 6 years, first heading up a Conservative / Liberal Democrate coalition, and since last year a single party, Conservative government. As Tory PMs go, he wasn't too bad. The way he left office was not something that I find very good.

The UK voting to leave the EU was his prompt to leave office. The EU has always been a divisive issue in the Conservative Party, and over the last few years, the Tories were running scared of the Eurosceptic UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). That was enough for Cameron to give in to demands for a referendum, something that he was not obliged to organise. He did. Although I was not following the debates, these appear to have been highly polarised. Worse than that, I have been horrified at the levels of racism and xenophobia that seem to be about in the UK. The perceived flood of migrant workers from other EU countries could be to 'blame' for that.

The referendum result has also served to split the Labour party. Although current leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a challenge to his leadership, I expect him to be returned as leader. He is held to be on the left flank of the party, and with Cameron's successor Theresa May positioned towards the right of the Conservative Party, politics in the UK appear to be back where they were some 25-30 years ago. Highly polarised.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit a reality

The UK out of the EU. A momentous decision with implications that few of us, certainly not me, can appreciate. I feel it is a wrong decision, made on the flawed premise that certain recent problems would not have occurred if the UK had not been a memberstate of the EU. In a nutshell, I feel that Europe has made a step backward by 80 years. We are headed back into the bad old days of nationalism from the early 20th century. Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland has as good as announced another independence referendum. Geert Wilders in Holland wants a referendum there to quit the EU. Current polls suggest he could be heading up a government after next March's general elections there. Martin Maguinness wants a referendum on the unification of the island of Ireland. Has he forgotten the Troubles? No, he can't have done, he was a bomber back then.

The far right is in the ascendancy across Europe. Why? A flood of migrants. How come? Wars, poverty. Who brings those people to Europe's shore? No answer. Nobody knows, nobody does anything about it. Certainly David Cameron did nothing. The Europe of 2020 could well see an independent Scotland, a much diminished UK, and the EU in meltdown following exit-referendums across several of its memberstates. That is precisely what our friend in the Kremlin, Vladimir Vladimirovich, wants. Be afraid. Be very afraid. For who will say that it is not at his behest that the civil war in Syria is being propagated and the people smugglers of the Mediterranean encouraged. It is the flood of migrants (not just from Syria, by the way) that has prompted this looming crisis in the European Union. The Union of the 27 now face a real and existential threat. Look east and you'll see from who.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Brexit

Even here in Holland, the Brexit Referendum is making the news. It could cost the Dutch economy 500 million euros (roughly £400m) with increased costs for trade etcetera if the UK were to leave the EU. Britain is Holland's third largest trading partner. Upon an actual Brexit, the UK could become part of the European Economic Area, of which Norway is one member. More info on the EEA on their website http://www.efta.int/eea. Thinking that being a member of the EEA is the same as being a member of the EU with all the perks but none of the obligations is factually erroneous. 

The EU is a flawed organisation, which is best improved from within. If the UK were to leave, it would have a hard time renegotiating a deal with the EU, if only on past form. For a long time, the UK has been regarded as an awkward customer, particularly since Margaret Thatcher. Many in the EU will regard a Brexit as good riddance. 

I think it would be a thoroughly bad choice, bad for Britain, bad for Europe and bad for the rest of the world. We'd be going back to the bad old days of a divided, nationalistic (in the nasty sense of the word) Europe. Do not forget that the European Union was initially set up as a trading block, to facilitate trade, enhance international cooperation in Europe. A Brexit would set us all back. Reform, change and improve the European Union. Cut back on its massive, inflated, hyperbolic bureaucracy. Cut down on some of the silly regulations. But, UK, help by being a constituent part of the Union. You cannot help to change a club by leaving it.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

EU referendum

On June 23rd, voters in the UK will go to the polls to decide whether to stay in the EU or not. I am not eligible to vote, but will nonetheless summarise my stance on this important issue.

The European Union was started in 1957 as a trading association between Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux nations (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) in the aftermath of the Second World War. It has ballooned into a political force, comprising of 28 countries, 17 of whom now have a shared currency, the Euro. There is plenty wrong with it, bureaucracy being the worst aspect of it. Why does it need to have three headquarters, Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg? Each has a full complement of civil servants etcetera. Why does it need to do with regulatory affairs encompassing all member states? Some aspects are best left to individual countries, as nuances may differ across nations.

The UK has always had a fractious relationship with the EU. Although a desire was expressed to join the EEC (the precedessor to the UK) in the 1960s, it was France's General de Gaulle who stymied that desire with his infamous 'non'. The EU has caused severe disruption within the Conservative Party, which has had major fallings-out over the issue. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lost her position over the EU in November 1990. The UK has negotiated a 'special deal' and a rebate from the EU, although I have never properly understood what made the UK eligible for such a special deal. And all that haranging, with handbags or without, will have decreased the likelihood for other EU leaders to give the UK leeway in any future discussions about its status. 

Current PM David Cameron has felt compelled to call a referendum, although he himself is backing the In campaign. Senior government ministers in his cabinet are all for Out. However, I would be for In, if I were able to vote. I have indicated that there is a lot wrong with the EU, and change will need to happen. It is far better to effect change from within. The Out campaign are playing on base fears such as the fear of strangers - immigrants from near and far and base emotions such as sovereignty and national pride. The job of any government is to decide on a way forward which will be the best for its people. Again, in my opinion, it is in the best interests of the UK for it to remain a member of the EU.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Election 2016 - the outcome

Scottish Parliamentary elections have yielded an interesting outcome. The Scottish National Party increased their share of the votes, but decreased the number of seats in the chamber. That is due to the vagaries of the system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation which rule here. This means the SNP will rule as a minority administration, with support from other parties. As a result, the likelihood of another independence referendum has receded. Fortunately, that is my opinion. The Labour party, once the strongest party in the land, was relegated to third place by the Conservatives, who once were very impopular, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's reign in the 1980s.

Here in the Western Isles, the SNP's Alasdair Allan retained his seat, but with a decreased majority.

Next: the EU referendum on June 23rd.