What is the opposite of a riot? It must be the serenity of the Isle of Bute. This island, close to Glasgow in the firth of Clyde, is not merely riot-free, it is almost spookily calm. When I visited it last week for the first time, I heard vague talk of a drug problem in Rothesay, its principal town, but that was the only hint of possible criminality. If all of Scotland were like Bute, Alex Salmond would have been justified in stating that Scotland had ‘a different society’ to that of England, one in which riots did not occur. So little seems to occur on Bute that the local newspaper, the Buteman, finds only matters of almost comic inconsequence to report. I saw two editions of the paper. The first led its front page with the news that Chinese lanterns were putting livestock at risk. A farmer near Port Bannatyne had found the remains of two Chinese lanterns near his herd of cattle and told the Buteman: ‘The lanterns could easily be eaten by cows, and the wire frames could puncture their stomachs and kill them.’ That sounded alarming until it was revealed later in the article that no such occurrence had ever taken place. While English cities were in flames, the fear that cows might start chewing wire from burnt-out Chinese lanterns was the greatest excitement that Bute had to offer.
The next edition of the Buteman had the touching headline ‘Simple steps to a busier Bute’. Since the appeal of Bute relies to a great extent on its lack of activity, I approached the story with unease. But the island, which has lost a quarter of its population and most of its tourist industry over the past 50 years, is in no imminent danger of becoming busy. And it would be churlish to object to efforts to reverse its decline. Too many shops are closing, too many houses display ‘For Sale’ notices, and too many hotels announce vacancies at the height of summer to leave any visitor unmoved. The ‘simple steps’ were being proposed at a meeting of a new marketing organisation called VisitBute by its chairman John McGhee QC, a London lawyer and newcomer to the island who has earned both praise and resentment for his dynamic approach to the cause of Bute’s economic recovery. The journalist and eloquent Bute enthusiast Ian Jack, with whom I was staying at his seaside home outside Rothesay, has written for the Guardian in tentative support of Mr McGhee’s plan to replace Bute’s former status as a summer refuge for the working people of Glasgow with a new role as a trendy destination for middle-class visitors from the south of England. As it is, there could hardly be a nicer place to visit than Bute, with its beautiful landscapes, sea views, and lack of motor traffic; but most people nowadays are so spoilt that they are reluctant go anywhere unless they are actively courted. They insist on what Mr McGhee calls ‘a coherent tourism offer’. And this, he adds, is ‘a really difficult question for Bute, and one for which I think we need to get experts in’. My advice would be to hurry and get there before the experts arrive.
Apart from serenity, Bute offers Mount Stuart, the Victorian Gothic seaside palace of the Marquess of Bute, breathtaking in its scale and ambition, and the world’s last sea-going paddlesteamer, the Waverley, launched in 1946, which still cruises daily in high summer around the islands of the firth of Clyde. An accordionist on board serenades you with Scottish folk music while you may, if you wish, read the soothing editorials of the Buteman, in which the editor last week pronounced himself ‘not qualified to comment’ on Mr McGhee’s plans, and the week before devoted his leading article to describing how bad he was at baking fruit scones.
Vicious and cowardly: these were the adjectives used by David Cameron to denounce last week’s suicide bombing of the British Council building in Kabul. ‘Vicious’, yes; but surely not ‘cowardly’? However wicked suicide bombers may be (and they are very wicked indeed), they are not cowards. Not physical cowards, anyway. (I suppose they might be accused of moral cowardice for not daring to live, but I doubt if that’s what Mr Cameron meant.) We should expect more of our prime minister than the adoption of a cliché, let alone such an unbelievable one as this. It is true that Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all described suicide attacks as cowardly, but this was probably because they knew that Americans regard cowardice as the most despicable of sins. That is no excuse for Mr Cameron.
Alexander Chancellor was editor of The Spectator from 1975 to 1984. He writes a column for the Guardian.
the spectator | 27 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk pol_2010_11_2011.indd 13