Katie McCullough for The Times London: All the EU’s Work in the Highlands is Now Under Threat
Assistant Professor Katie McCullough writes for The Times London's "Thunderer" column Tuesday, October 10, 2017:
The Highlands and Islands of Scotland have always been a problem to outsiders. Though the roots go back further, it was during the Age of Improvement (ca. 1770-1850) that outsiders created the notion that this area, in contrast to the rest of the UK, was in perpetual decline due to stunted economic development and de-population. According to this line of thought, those who didn’t emigrate chose to live in a suspended state of poverty due to an unwillingness to change. However, “the Highland Problem,” as this construction is normally called, had more to do with a lack of sustained investment in more diverse locally-appropriate industries and an economy that was far too reliant upon international markets. Nevertheless, the idea that the area was “beyond help” and that Highlanders were resistant to change, lasted well into the twentieth century.
In recent years, thanks largely to the EU, the construction of “the Highland Problem” seems to finally be in abeyance. There were efforts to develop the economy from the late eighteenth century onwards (except, generally speaking, during the Highland Clearances) by both private and state enterprise, supporting industries associated with the area today such as fishing, fine woollen products, tourism, and whisky. But it wasn’t until the 1980s when the European Union began a program of tailored structural assistance in line with other areas of the UK deemed to be underperforming, such as West Wales & the Valleys and Merseyside, that the economy of the H&I witnessed significant growth. Since then, working with local agencies such as Highland and Island Enterprise, the University of the Highlands and Islands (given university status in 2011 thanks largely to European structural funds) and Scotland Europa, EU support has led to unprecedented advances in economic development and both population retention and growth. Young people are staying home to study at the various campuses of UHI, which also attracts a significant number of international students, and the programs it offers and the research its scholars perform are largely intended to develop and sustain every facet of life in the H&I. Communication networks are improving, and a migrant population—largely from Europe—helps to fill the growing number of jobs in tech, tourism, energy, renewables and any number of SMEs supported by EU structural funding.
However, this significant momentum of social and economic development of the H&I is under threat as the UK prepares to leave the EU. In 2011, the population of the H&I was 466,112, the highest ever recorded. There was hope by those involved in the continued development of the area that the population would rise to half a million by the year 2027, which is predicted to happen at the current rate of increase. The business start-up rate is above the Scottish average, the unemployment rate is below the UK average, and Inverness—the capital of the Highlands—is one of the UK’s fastest growing cities. It seems that the Highlands and Islands have left behind its problem status and instead can now be held up as an example of what a successful region looks like. Indigenous ingenuity, EU funding, a University, population retention and migration to the area, have been the keys to success. With Brexit, the fate of the Highlands and Islands hangs in the balance once again.