Sketch: MSPs debate whether or not islands exist

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 21 June 2018 in Comment

Parliamentary sketch: A debate on the Islands Bill brings out the best in the chamber

John Donne - image credit: Holyrood

No man is an island, or so John Donne thought.

But when is an island not an island? That’s a different question. It’s an odder question, too. And also, a worse question. But nonetheless, that’s what MSPs were discussing.

Well, they were discussing it because John Mason wanted them to, anyway, with the SNP MSP using a rural economy committee meeting, back in September, to raise what he called a “minor point” regarding the Islands Bill – a piece of legislation aiming to give Scotland’s island communities a stronger voice.

Yes, you guessed it, Mason was worried there could be bits of land, based around the edge of Scotland, that are masquerading as islands in order to benefit from the change in status brought by the legislation.

As he asked a Scottish Government official: “Was it a unanimous view that Skye should be included? The bill says that bridges should be ignored, but surely Skye does not have the problems with ferries and other transport that real islands do?”

‘Real islands’. It was a weird point, in large part because the isle of Skye is, quite famously, a real island. And that’s actually one of the main differences between John Donne and John Mason. One believed no man is an island, the other is unsure if some islands are islands. And to be fair, islands may have become more complicated since the 17th century, though Mason’s point would suggest men have too.

Even the committee members looked surprised, and they spend every Wednesday with him. Some of them actually gasped, leaving Edward Mountain, the convener, forced to intervene with a shaky attempt to make peace. “I am sure that we all agree that Skye is a real island,” he said, looking around at his colleagues somewhat desperately.

Fake news is one thing. Fake islands are quite another. It should be pointed out, perhaps, that Mason has quite a long and confusing history of disputing the existence of islands, which, in itself, tells you quite a bit about the nature of Scottish politics. In fact, Mason isn’t totally convinced that Britain is an island, explaining on Twitter that “some people would argue that the tunnel means it is no longer an island”.

But then, how do we know any island is a real island? In fact, how do we know anything is really real? There’s certainly very little evidence that John Mason is for real. If the simpler explanation is the better one, then the most coherent explanation for the debate lay in the fact John Mason is not really an MSP, but instead a complicated comedy character that got out of hand.

But it wasn’t all about island fraud, with the Stage 3 debate on the bill exposing concerns that, while some islands may be fake, others are been trapped inside boxes.

Of course, most discussion of maps in Scottish politics tends to relate to the theory that Scotland is deliberately shrunken to make it look smaller than it really is. Which is true, of course, because that’s how maps work. If everything on a map was represented as its true size then you’d be reduced to walking around on top of a sheet of paper the literal size of the world.

This time, though, the problem came from the Lib Dems, with Shetland MSP Tavish Scott and Orkney MSP Liam McArthur teaming up to demand an end to mapmakers drawing the UK with Shetland (and sometimes Orkney) transported hundreds of miles south, with a weird box placed around it so you know it’s been moved.

Shetlanders are unimpressed, with islanders arguing the ploy encourages people to underestimate the challenges of being based so far from the mainland. As Scott put it: “Whether that is the Moray coast, the Orkney coast or any other coast, it is not the right coast. We will no longer accept the lazy interpretation of maps that we have put up with for so long.”

It really raised a lot of questions, not least why no one had considered the possibility of holding a referendum on the box. After all, think how much fun the TV debates would be.

And Scott’s plan did seem to make sense, though of course the other option – which went ignored –was of building a real-life box in the ocean around Shetland, so that old maps will be accurate in future.

There are a number of advantages to the plan. Firstly, we wouldn’t need to change the maps. Secondly, the box would also serve as a sea wall to protect against Vikings.

Of course, some will question the cost of building a perfectly straight wall in a box around Shetland, just to justify the fact we spent decades making maps wrong, but that ignores the cold economic reality: Orkney will pay for the wall.

But then, if a group of islands have a wall around them, separating them from the wider sea, are they still islands?

Someone should ask John Mason. 

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