Economics of Independence

7 lessons from the Isle of Eigg for an independent Scotland

Written by Michael Gray

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe campaign for an independent Scotland is based on creating a better country, but is it possible?

Understandably strategies to improve Scotland’s economy are examined and criticised. People ask ‘Is this possible?’, ‘Can we afford it?’, ‘Will it work?’.

Based on the evidence, Scotland is a wealthy nation with vast natural resources, a skilled workforce and a strong, diverse economy. Scotland can do better and there are numerous examples where strong leadership and local control has made a huge difference.

One of the best examples is the Isle of Eigg – which provides at least seven lessons for an independent Scotland.

Lesson 1) Community ownership has given people control

A major milestone in the history of the Isle of Eigg was when the community took control over its assets with a community buyout in 1997. This gave the Eigg Community Group control over major projects on the island.

Independence gives future Scottish governments greater control over Scotland’s finances, as well as control of major investments and decisions.

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Lesson 2) Renewable energy can transform our energy system

The Isle of Eigg has established its own independent energy grid with wind, solar and hydro sites. The island is now almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy, and the project has reduced overall energy costs.

Scotland is the most renewables rich country in Europe with vast wind, wave and tidal energy potential. Renewables have been supported by the current Scottish Parliament. With the full powers of independence Scotland can do much more to create jobs in the energy sector and provide clean energy for the 21st century.

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Lesson 3) Investment in infrastructure improves opportunities

The Isle of Eigg Community group have focused on improving the island’s infrastructure. The energy network links into the community centre and churches to provide warm public spaces at lower cost. Housing support has also encouraged young people to move to the island.

Similarly an independent Scotland can prioritise improving transport links, energy transmission and housing. The Scotland Means Business report highlighted the opportunities to improve Scotland’s economy through investment.

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Lesson 4) New technology create better services

Innovation on the Isle of Eigg has used modern technology to revitalise the island. The energy system used PV panels and advanced storage systems.

Scotland can benefit from improvements in electronics, communications, design and transportation. The design group Lateral North developed a strategy that combined technology, design and a new economic strategy to make Scotland better off.

The Yes Campaign represents the diverse talents of the people of Scotland

The Yes Campaign represents the diverse talents of the people of Scotland

Lesson 5) Local participation makes the system work

The Isle of Eigg projects are succeeding because those who live there are actively involved. The original buyout, the electricity scheme and future projects required determination, the ability to co-operate, overcome old prejudices and working together to solve problems. Rather than being imposed from outside or on high, it was the citizens of the island who changed its priorities and maintain the new system.

An independent Scotland will succeed due to the talents and contributions of people who live in Scotland. Developing a constitution, improving economic performance and expanding responsibilities in tax, social security and international affairs will require people from education, business, politics and throughout Scottish society to participate in the process.

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Lesson 6) Communities can turn around problems

Before the community buyout the Isle of Eigg faced numerous problems. Decisions were taken from afar, the population had dropped, young people continued to leave the island, Eigg was cut off from the national grid, had no proper pier for ferries, and relied on expensive disel fuel for its power. Due to the change in ownership and a variety of projects all these problems have either been solved or mitigated.

An independent Scotland will also face huge challenges. Some of these – like national finances, demographic changes and climate change – are faced by many countries. Scotland also faces the challenges of high inequalities in health, education and wealth. Scotland also has to improve its economic performance and create new jobs for the 21st century. There are many ways to solve these problems, and the powers of independence provide to opportunity to do so.

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Lesson 7) Have confidence and ambition

The Isle of Eigg raised £1.5 million to become the first Scottish island owned by its inhabitants. This was a huge challenge for a small and geographically isolated community. With determined campaigning efforts, organising and fundraising, the target was reached and this same ambition for their community has transformed the island.

Scotland is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It has vast natural resources, a skilled population, a strong trading position, competitive advantages across business sectors and many other strengths. In the vote on independence it makes sense to have confidence in Scotland and ambition for Scotland. Medium sized countries can develop strong political systems and Scotland is capable of leading the world with innovative solutions in energy, trade and design.

Conclusion

The Isle of Eigg is a small example of what can be done by taking on the responsibilities of leadership and by creating opportunities. With more economic influence over a community, the islanders transformed Eigg to the benefit of the people who live there. It took a great deal of effort and careful planning. Yet despite financial and social challenges, important improvements were achieved.

The independence referendum presents the same scenario on a national scale. Independence gives the people of Scotland a greater stake in their democracy. It provides the best opportunities for the renewable energy sector to expand. It means Scottish governments can invest in infrastructure, provide specific solutions and encourage participation. Most of all, a vote for independence is a vote of confidence in Scotland’s abilities and a vote of ambition that Scotland can do better with political power in Scotland.

As on the Isle of Eigg, the people who are best placed to drive improvements in Scotland are the people who live and work here. A vote for independence gives us the power to improve our lives and solves our problems.

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About the author

Michael Gray

Michael is Head of Research with Business for Scotland.

A graduate from the University of Glasgow, he has carried out a series of interviews with academics, politicians and the public in Denmark, Iceland and Ireland. Michael's on twitter @GrayInGlasgow.

5 Comments

  • Having studied Eigg over more than twenty years I filed a more objective evaluation on this site but in keeping with the new order it was quickly censured and removed.
    Still I suppose we had better get used to it. I think the Yes campaign will win, have already put my house on the market.
    Loved the opening ceremony of the CG last night, best video for the No thanks campaign I have ever seen. How on earth did Alastair manage it?

  • This excellent article prompted me to post about my visit to the Isle of Gigha two weeks ago.

    My wife and I last visited Gigha in 1999, a couple of years before the buyout by the community. Co-incidentally, fellow passengers on the ferry were David Trimble, the then Northern Ireland First Minister and his family. We hired a pair of very rickety bikes from the famous Seamus McSporran’s shop and rode the length of the beautiful little island. The island had a very run down appearance with most houses looking dingy and dilapidated.

    The difference after 15 years is dramatic. There are many new houses, and most of the rest have been refurbished. The 4 turbine wind farm was fully active, and the proceeds of its power sold to the grid covers all the island’s expenses. The hotel is now an enterprise run as a wholly owned subsidiary of the community trust, and affords employment to several of the island residents.

    I talked at some length to 4 people during our visit. The first two had somewhat negative comments about the community trustees. One, a restaurateur near the pier had come to the island a year ago, and was miffed that the decision making process was slow, since matters are only dealt with once a month when the trustees meet. He was also annoyed that the sales wagon that he had recently brought on to the island and parked next to his business had not been approved by the trustees and he had been told to remove it.

    The second negative comment was from a person who was preparing a holiday home for the summer rental period. His wife, an islander who had moved to England, had inherited the house from her late mother, and they now derived an income from renting the property out during the season. He was miffed that an application from him to obtain the lease of one of the trust’s inland housing stock had been turned down. He wanted to come and live on the island in the summer months, so that he could manage the rental business more effectively, and felt that he could therefore have attracted more guests to his property which would have increased spend on the island.

    In contrast, the craft business owner was extremely positive. She had applied to come to the island about 8 years ago to set the business up, was very happy and there for good. She was positive about living in a democracy and said that although she did not agree with every decision the elected trustees made, she was happy to accept the democratic outcome, and anyone could stand at the community elections if they wanted to change things. She said her business had been successful and had grown. She also told me that a new family with children had just arrived on the island to take on the lease of a farm which had not been cultivated for many years, and this represented another step forward in the sustainability of the island community.

    My final conversation was with a young woman who served our tea in the hotel. She was over the moon at having just been allocated a small house of her own on the island, so that she could move out from her parent’s house and be self sufficient. (It may well have been the one the rental landlord did not get). She was born and raised on the island, happy to have a good job in the hotel and that she could stay and make her life on the island.

    My overall feeling was that Gigha, like Eigg is a metaphor for Scottish independence and demonstrates in microcosm the positive energy and enterprise which can be unleashed and extra income which can be generated once people obtain the power to make local democratic decisions about their own lives and community.

    A final thought. It was good to hear Lord Trimble de-bunking the incorrect BBC message that Scottish independence would lead to an increase in violence in Northern Ireland. I heard him interviewed the next day when, to the obvious disappointment of his BBC Good Morning Scotland interviewer, he refuted the views incorrectly attributed to him, and although he personally did not wish Scotland to leave the Union, he felt that doing so by use of the democratic process would actually strengthen the peace process in Northern Ireland by showing what can be achieved by peaceful methods.

  • Michael,

    Thanks for this article and for highlighting the Island in an inspirational way. I regularly use the same example, though realise that I’m prejudiced!
    There’s more of course: Eigg is a hugely resilient community, self reliant and egalitarian. Problems and successes are shared. There is great determination to succeed. The population has increased since the buy-out in 1997 from 63 to 98, many being young returners.
    But times were tough before then: no control; at the mercy of absentees; no security of tenure; frustration and anxiety.
    If 63 can do it, why not, 6,300 or 5.6 million?

    John Hutchison
    Member, Business for Scotland
    Chair, Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust

    • I would like to see the same ethos in small communities all over Scotland.

      Hundreds of different models of how to do things surely has more chance of finding the best ways to do things.

    • how much public money has Eigg received now? where did it come from? how much does that equate to per head of population? how would you extrapolate use of these numbers to the wider highlands region or indeed an independent scotland as a whole?

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