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Notes on a smaller island

The Isle of Man sits between Britain and Ireland, outside the UK but represented by the Foreign Office, its people are subjects of the Queen. What's it like to live there, and what does it have to say about the Scottish referendum?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
20 August 2014

Douglas

As you approach on the boat, Douglas is beautiful. The Victorian splendour of an English seaside town, built beneath the gentle curve of a Hebridean hill. When you walk along the bay around which the capital of the Isle of Man is built, though, it begins to feel like a concave mirror, reflecting Britain back at herself.

Every 25 paces there is a flag, every 40, a bank and everything is named after something royal. I was staying on Palace Terrace, Queen's promenade. Within 100 yards are the Empress Hotel, Queen's Mansion, Queen's Apartments, the Regal Hotel, the Kings' Hotel... Those not named for the monarchy are named for the Empire: the Imperial, St Helena, and, perhaps most shockingly, The Travellion – presumably after Sir Charles, the British civil servant who did little to feed Ireland during the famine, and instead called it “an effective solution to the population problem”.

The Isle of Man sits half way between Britain and Ireland but has never become a part of the UK or EU, and I visited as part of a tour around the seven nations of this geological archipelago in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum. As you get off the ferry, there are no passport controls. Mann is, as Scotland would be, a part of the British Isles travel area, and demonstrates (as does Ireland) that different work-visa rules don't require border checks.

The first businesses you see are banks and estate agents, all with Manx flags fluttering above their “off shore” branches. Sandwiched between these dens of millionaires is the best sign you can find that an economy isn't booming for all – the one which reads: “we buy gold and silver”. A wander around the town fast confirmed these suspicions. It's a Saturday night in August, and few people are around. On the main shopping streets, a number of buildings have a mournful “to let” sign. There's more than one gambling shop. Amidst the wealth of tax-dodgers, Douglas is just another British sea-side resort living in the shadow of cheap-flights to Ibiza, another recession-hit Northern town .

Head up the hill from the port and to the left stretches Athol street, the financial district – presumably named after the Scottish duchy which once claimed lordship of the Isle. To the right is the Tynwald – the home of the oldest and only tricameral parliament on earth and arguably the first for which women won the vote. At the top, there's a Spar which advertises that it sells “local food for local people” and a few doors down, an island outpost of Saville Row, who sell fine suits for millionaires. The building has another “to let” sign poking from it.

Throughout this contrast, one thing is consistent. At every possible opportunity – engravings on buildings, flying on flags, posted in shop windows, on every number plate – the three legged symbol of Mann is displayed. These aren't the only insignia that are different: it has its own number plates and, like Scotland and Northern Ireland, its own pound notes.

The next day I took the 1900's era electric tram north of the town, first to Snaefell, then over the clifftops Ramsey. The former is the highest mountain on the island. From its summit, they say that on a clear day, you can see seven “kingdoms” – the first six being Mann, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic; the seventh being heaven. But it was cloudy, so instead, I retreated to the mountaintop cafe and got a roast pork bap and a scone with jam and clotted cream.

On the journey, the tram went through “glens” (rather than valleys) and passed place-names with a mix of Norse (Snaefell, Kirkmichael) and Gaelic (Baldrine, Torridon, Onachan) roots, giving the feeling of having left the English seaside and found myself almost immediately amidst the Scottish hills I grew up in. Ramsey itself, though it has one or two Victorian hotels, is much more the scallop port than the tourist resort. Ever monarchical, they specialise in capturing “queenies” - a smaller version of the shellfish, which I later discover are sublime.

The owner of the (near empty) local cafe started off by telling me the same thing as almost everyone I met on the island – the sixties were the glory days, before cheap flights. Today, he says, the Manx economy follows that of the North of England, and lags far behind London. It's still in recession. These days, he says, they rely for visitors on specific events, organised by the Isle of Man government tourist board: the TT motorcycle race is the biggest, but he reels off a list of others: a darts tournament, a recent trainspotters gathering, etc. Mann is a tax haven, but there are many other ways in which the government is able to take advantage of its specific circumstances to support the economy here without undermining its neighbours.

Back in Douglas, I pop into one pub for a drink and a chat. The barman tells me that he thinks most people would "be glad to be rid" of Scotland. As Mann isn't in the UK, I am not sure what he means by "rid of" but soon, he's moved on to tell me about the lack of tourists and future business opportunities. Once he's finished giving me his mind, I move on to another pub which looked more like the place for locals than tourists or bankers. There, I found a cluster of friendly regulars. Most turned out to be builders, with a Scottish born landlady very much in charge. She was cross she didn't get a vote in the referendum, not keen on Salmond, and felt people needed more information. The builders were eager to tell me about island life and the most vocal of them was Jock Mackenzie, also a Scot by birth.

“It's a very good place to live, especially for people bringing up families” said Jock “there's not as much crime as the UK, probably. As far as working people – hard working cunts – they're not any better off than being in the UK because it's only geared up for rich people, minimum tax for them, we pay the same tax as the UK, 20%.”

Like many people on the island, he pointed out how expensive it is to leave: “It's around £300 for people on the boat with the car. I went to Budapest in June, and the fair from here to Manchester was £270. The fair from Manchester to Budapest was £210”. His friend complained that he was in his 40s, with children, but was still renting privately. They didn't spend their days building houses for ordinary people, but mansions for millionaires. Asked about the UK and they tell me that “it's fucked”. Why? “immigrants”.

There are some ways in which ordinary people in the Isle of Man are better off than those across the water, though – the proceeds from their status as what they (and David Cameron) call an “international finance centre” and what I would call a tax haven, are largely spent on a relatively generous welfare state.

It's not what it once was, though. A combination of the financial crisis and America's Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act have squeezed money out of the island. The government recently scrapped the scheme through which it paid full tuition fees for anyone from the island leaving for university, and instead demands £1000 from those whose parents are better off, and likewise introduced fees for nursery schools, one local told me.

The island's health service has a reciprocal agreement with the NHS, meaning patients on Mann are often taken to hospitals in the UK when they need specialist treatment, and Mann cleans up those TT racers who get into a scrape as if they were at home. This is exactly the kind of agreement Better Together campaigners in Scotland imply is impossible.

I have sometimes said that the country imagined by the most ardent British nationalists only really exists in Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and the Falkland islands. But, in a sort of distorted way, I've found it here too: every spare inch of the island is smothered in a flag to remind you that this isn't part of the UK, but from the Victorian waterfront to the cream tea on the mountaintop; from the Irn Bru sold in every cornershop to the poster in the Tourist office for a Nigel Farage meeting, from their dependence on financial services to their quirky transport arrangements, Mann, despite not being in the UK, is the most British place I've ever been. Like it or not, it seems Britishness doesn't wholly depend on being governed from London.

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