Election '97: Nationalists play for real in battle for the Isles

Stephen Goodwin on controversial war games in Britain's remotest seat
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The Independent Online
Four hundred soldiers of the Royal Artillery armed with Rapier missiles have spent most of this month trying to put down a rebellion by crofters in the Western Isles.

Well that is what Lt Col Nigel Philpott told his men to pretend they were doing. Unfortunately he had not cleared the scenario with the Army's Scottish headquarters and the MoD has been forced to issue an apology.

Faking an insurrection in the middle of an election campaign seems particularly inept in a constituency where the Scottish Nationalists are mounting a big effort to retake the islands from Labour.

Anne Lorne Gillies, the SNP challenger, said she hoped the timing had no connection with election. The scenario dreamt up by Lt Col Philpott is hardly favourable to the Nationalists as it envisaged a Scottish government calling on English help to put down a revolt against rule from Edinburgh.

Calum Macdonald, who has held the seat for Labour since 1987, said the scenario was "plain silly" and brought into question the judgement of a commanding officer normally based in the south-east England. Relations are generally good between the Army and islanders who have campaigned to keep open the missile firing range on Benbecula. Some 200 civilians are employed on the range.

The bizarre exercise, with soldiers in war paint clutching automatic weapons and lying by camouflaged missile batteries as island children look on, just serves to emphasise that Britain's most far-flung constituency is a place apart.

Geography and island culture rather than party allegiance or policies shape the politics of the islands' 23,300 voters - by far the smallest electorate in what Ms Gillies pointedly refers to as "the so-called UK".

The Western Isles form a chain some 130 miles long. Only 10 of the 200 or so islands are inhabited, from Vatersay in the south, with just 70 souls, to Lewis in the north with a population of about 22,000.

Unemployment and transport are the main concerns aired to the contenders. To the tourist on a bright June day the islands may appear idyllic, croft houses overlooking a cream sand beach with a fishing boat beyond the bay. But the remoteness carries financial and social costs.

Doorstepping, as I did with Mr Macdonald last week, is a slow business, with an invitation to come in and chat at almost every house. "To hurry by would be regarded as rude," he explains.

On the fishing island of Scalpay (population 380) we were treated to tea and home-made scones on the best china in the front room rather as if the parson had called.

But it was the first constituency where, on South Uist and Eriskay, I have been frozen out by the SNP candidate's insistence on canvassing in Gaelic. Ms Gillies appears over-anxious to prove her links to the Western Isles which traditionally votes for one of its own. Mr Macdonald, aged 42, was born and brought up on Lewis.

Gillies stresses her upbringing on a croft near Oban, where her father chaired the SNP branch, and the Argyll port's importance as a gateway to the Isles. Campaigning with the professionalism she learnt as a Gaelic singer and television personality in the 1970s and 1980s, Ms Gillies wears a stylish Harris Tweed jacket, though the effect somehow is more Folleted New Labour than unsophisticated Hebridean.

Though 95 per cent of the population are reckoned to speak Gaelic, polite convention has it that when non-Gaelic speakers are present conversations are conducted in English.

As for the affinity with Oban, "Six hours away by ferry" was one islander's mocking aside. The absence of tax discs on vehicles on the smaller islands suggests no enthusiasm to be any nearer the seat of authority be it in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

The Scottish Nationalists have high hopes that the 52-year old Ms Gillies will retake the constituency, which in 1970 returned the first ever SNP member of Parliament. But the avuncular Donald Stewart was provost of Stornoway, the Western Isles capital, and a local through and through. "He was a fine man," one Scalpay woman told me earnestly after as good as promising her vote on 1 May to Mr Macdonald.

His languorous manner tends to reinforce the whispers of opponents that Mr Macdonald is lazy and has not been shaking as many hands as a man with a majority of 1,703 really ought. But he has a good work record. He pushed through a Bill to aid crofters and points out the stronger position he will be in as their MP if Labour assumes power.