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by Margaret Taylor
23 October 2023
'I stood against  Diane Abbott and saved my deposit - only 10 Greens in the UK did that'

Shetland councillor Alex Armitage on the Fair Isle ferry

'I stood against Diane Abbott and saved my deposit - only 10 Greens in the UK did that'

Green councillor Alex Armitage, who represents the Shetland South ward on Shetland Islands Council, on moving to the islands and how Fair Isle jumpers became known around the world.

Describe the area you represent in one sentence.

A beautiful strip of land that stretches from Lerwick to Sumburgh, with the jewel in the crown being Fair Isle.

How long have you lived there?

I’m an accidental islander. My mum’s side of the family is from Shetland but I’m from London. I moved up here with my wife and 10-year-old son at the end of 2020. I’m a consultant paediatrician, my wife, Deepa, is a GP, and we work for the NHS. Our long-term plan was to move here and a job was created for me. I’m the first paediatrician on the islands.

Alex and Deepa outside their former home in Hackney

Shetland must be very different to London?

It is. We lived in Hackney, in central London. Everyone thinks of the city as being an urban concrete jungle but actually we lived on a council estate, and it was quite quiet and we had fantastic neighbours. I miss it, but there are amazing benefits to being in Shetland.

Tell us something we won’t know about your local area.

The Fair Isle Channel goes through my ward. The quickest way to go by sea from Europe to the US is over the top of the UK, not through the English Channel, and huge amounts of cargo and goods travel through the Fair Isle Channel. It has a lot of historical relevance. In the old days, Shetlanders used to go out on small boats to trade with the big boats. That’s how Fair Isle knitwear became famous around the world.    

Who is the best-known person from your area?

Probably the journalist Jen Stout. She’s become well known for her amazing and very brave reporting from Ukraine. That’s an aspect of the international side of Shetland – when she was growing up she was interested in Russia and part of the link was that sailors came here from Russia.

What challenges are unique to your particular part of the country?

It’s not unique to Shetland but it does have an extra significance to it and it’s fuel poverty. Because of the adverse conditions we have here, with the highest winds in the UK, heating costs are significantly increased. The number of people paying more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel bills is significantly higher than in other parts of the UK. 

What made you stand for election?

I worked in South Africa as a junior doctor, and I became really politicised by seeing the human effects of rampant inequality – rampant inequality that had its roots in politics. With the climate crisis I feel that so much of our political system has been captured by very rich people and multinational corporations and we need to fight against that. One of the ways is through the political system. 

St Ninian's beach, Shetland

Were you involved with politics when you lived in London?

I joined the Green Party in 2008 and stood as a local council candidate in Dalston in 2018. I was one vote away from being elected in the first count. We asked for a recount and it was 21, but I was still a whisker away from being elected in a Labour stronghold. There are two Greens there now, which is great. In 2019 I stood against local MP Diane Abbott in the general election. I did alright – I got eight per cent of the vote and saved my deposit. There were only 10 Greens in the UK who saved their deposits. I ate into Diane’s vote by about five per cent. My aim was to come second. I didn’t quite manage that, but it was a really interesting experience.

What’s the one thing Holyrood politicians could do that would be of greatest benefit to the area you represent?

If you were to take Shetland as a whole, it would be to give local control of fisheries. Fishing is a huge backbone industry in Shetland, and I feel that if there could be a system of management done at a local level with proper science and proper funding it would be effective. If we’re talking about my ward then transport is a huge issue, both on the island but also external transport. The NorthLink ferry doesn’t fulfil the needs our population has. It’s a night boat and it needs more spaces for people to sleep. It has cabins, which are very nice, but they are expensive and there aren’t enough of them. 

What’s the best bit about living where you do?

We’ve got an amazing community and there’s amazing wildlife. I also live five minutes from the best beach in Scotland: St Ninian's. It’s idyllic.

Is there a particular word you love using that only people in your part of the country would recognise?

One related to politics is spaegie. It’s the muscle ache you get the day after doing exercise – when you’re out chapping doors, the next day you have aching knees and calves. My favourite is smoorikin, though. That’s a kiss. 

If you could live anywhere else where would it be?

South Africa. There’s been so much upheaval with the apartheid system and there are still so many economic injustices. As a doctor you really feel you can make a difference to support people’s needs and livelihoods that you can’t do in the UK because we are a healthier society. 

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