It's not all cats and kippers

The Isle of Man has its own laws and a quirky way of life. But there's its serious side too - a pounds 15bn tax-haven.

If you are Manx, you feel different. Your Parliament is 1,000 years old; your ancestral language unintelligible to the English. Pound notes survive; country roads have no speed limits. On stamps, the Queen's head bears no crown, cats have no tails, and the Little People - Mooinjer Veggey - are everywhere. Douglas's faded guest houses may recall Blackpool and the local accent sound Scouse, but this is a Celtic place. The Pagan Federation has just appointed a national officer from here.

Many are unaware of Manx distinctiveness. They imagine a bit of Lancashire floated west. But the island's creation story is more persuasive - Irish giant Finn MacCool fought a Scottish contemporary and flung a clod of earth towards him. It fell short into the sea.

You can see the difference the moment you arrive. This island is awash in spring flowers, thanks to the Gulf Stream, while Lancashire remains stuck in winter. Whitewashed cottages in Cregneash have a rare, rounded thatch, tied at the eaves just as in Donegal. With their peat fires, they smell like Ireland.

Neighbouring England - known as "the adjacent island" - is awakening to this difference. Yesterday, the island's leaders met to discuss the implications of breaking away from the UK. The Isle of Man is a Crown dependency, outside the UK, but London remains responsible for "good governance" and foreign affairs. The Queen is "Lord of Man". This tiny statelet, ridiculed as "60,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock in the Irish Sea", is seriously considering the details of going it alone - practical stuff like passports, where young people would attend university, and who would represent the island abroad.

This may sound as serious as a bunch of corps commissionaires planning a Third World War. But they are in earnest. And the issue is not Gaelic romanticism. Long gone are the late-Seventies, when Manx extremists burned buildings under the banner "Financial Sector Fuck Off". Today's threatened rebellion is about money. In fact, about pounds 15bn currently enjoying sanctuary from the British taxman. Threats via Europe to destroy this tax haven are behind a potential constitutional crisis.

The island bristles with shiny new buildings and household banks that underwrite Manx prosperity. From where brandy was once landed to beat the British blockade during the Napoleonic wars, Sun Life plies its offshore insurance business. The omens are poor. After Napoleon's defeat, the Duke of Atholl sold the island's sovereignty to George III for pounds 70,000. The English killed off smuggling. The Isle of Man went bust.

Since the Eighties, the island has thrived on low tax, offshore finance, something the Germans oppose by championing tax harmonisation. The fear is that London's Labour government will do Berlin's bidding and stamp out this late flowering of Thatcherism. No one wants to go back to living off spuds and herring.

I'm sitting at Heathrow, awaiting the morning flight to Douglas, the island's capital. The lounge is stuffed with corporate types, silenced by an announcement. The small aircraft is full, warns a voice. "Please check in all hand luggage as there may be no space on board." I spot businessmen clutching bulging briefcases. Which, I wonder, is stuffed with tenners, all set for swift deposit?

Of course, I am imagining things. As the island's chief minister, Donald Gelling, reassures me upon arrival: "You could not go into a bank on the Isle of Man with a suitcase of money and open an account. Our banks are probably more strictly regulated than those in the UK." He is right. But the Isle of Man does have an unfortunate reputation. Remember that company found selling guns to Rwanda? Where was it registered? Ah yes. And the man recently disqualified for having hundreds of company directorships? Where was he based? Ah yes.

But more damaging is the reality of low taxation, which can hardly appeal to Gordon Brown. The top income tax rate is 20 per cent. Likewise corporation tax. Capital gains and inheritance taxes do not exist. And no one need know your name if you register your company here.

So does the chief minister, Mr Gelling, favour independence as Britain flexes its muscles? "We will not be declaring UDI. I favour as much autonomy as possible without breaking the UK link," he says in his office, decorated with Manx pastoral scenes. Mr Gelling is the classic Manx leader, endlessly seeking consensus and compromise.

His voters are, likewise, not natural radicals. They are close to their politicians. Mr Gelling's home address and telephone number is in the telephone directory along with other members of Tynwald.

I'm in the smoking room of Devereau's Manx Kippers in Peel, the smallest city in the British Isles (one cathedral, 3,000 people), whose tiny medieval streets all lead to the quays where mountains of herring were once landed. "I'm a Manxman through and through, but we need the strength of England behind us," says Peter Canipa, explaining the tastiest way to eat a kipper. (Microwave for 90 seconds, spread on toast with lemon and lime marmalade.) "We've stayed with the Union through two world wars," he says. "Why change a system that has lasted 1,000 years?"

Andrew Douglas, a former merchant navy skipper with the affable face of a Manx Seamus Heaney, agrees. He laments the faster pace of life. "The traffic has become terrible," he says of the almost deserted roads. "Did you know that the ownership of cars per head of population is greater only in Los Angeles?" But independence is not for him. "We are at ease with ourselves. We feel independent. We are not English, Scots or Welsh. We are used to governing ourselves. But we are interested in evolution, not revolution."

However, there will be plenty of malcontents if London mishandles Manx interests. In that tiny thatched village of Cregneash is Phil Gawne, a Manx language officer. Where in 1961, just 160 people spoke the language, today the figure is nearer 1,000. There are two Manx-speaking nurseries. "We need independence," he says, "to regain the self-confidence lost when a language is lost, an experience that is like four divorces and 10 deaths in the family."

David Canaan, Mr Gelling's long-time rival and a former Manx Treasury minister wants the Manx pound linked to the dollar if Britain adopts the euro. Nigel Wood, managing director of the Isle of Man Assurance Company, says the island might do better cultivating links with Norway than Britain. "My fear," he says, "is that we could become a pawn in the UK's negotiations with Europe and I don't for a moment doubt the propensity of the UK government to use us as such... What we need to do is to assert our position on the world stage." Such talk embarrasses Donald Gelling. He worries about frightening the island's all-important investors.

The Isle of Man seems true to its easy-going image, known as "traa dy- liooar". But underneath, stimulated by nationalism in Scotland, lies suspicion of London that could spark a crisis. Do I sense hostility as I return to the adjacent island? Everyone stares at my luggage. But they don't smell fishy money. Just Peter Canipa's excellent kippers.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments