Mr Brown’s secret island

Tourist destination or tax haven, insular community or island retreat, Henry James Foy talks to the man in charge to discover what the Isle of Man is really all about.

It is Monday morning in April. Two Mr. Browns sit in their respective offices as leaders of their respective countries, and assess their schedule for the upcoming week. One is facing the prospect of an economic recession, constant challenges to his leadership and the largest deficit in opinion polls for decades. Life is not great for Gordon. For Tony, life is a little different. As the sun streams into his warm office, Tony Brown – Chief Minister of the Isle of Man – who has driven through rolling fields and past blue seas to work this morning, looks out of his first-floor window, surveying the street below. “People here have a good quality of life,” Brown suggests, with his customary smile. “We are very lucky, those of us who are able to live here. That’s my view!”, he proposes.

Brown is not your typical head of government. He may hold an almost identical title, wear a similar suit and tie, and attend alike meetings to his similarly-named counterpart in Westminster, but little else. Devoid of party politics, internal factions and an embittered opposition, the Chief Minister of the Isle of Man is a relaxed, good-humoured man who is thoroughly enjoying his job.

“It’s challenging, it’s exciting, it’s a great honour. It’s really quite interesting to have the ability to influence our future, but with that comes considerable responsibility,” he offers. It has been almost 18 months since he was appointed after the island’s December 2006 general election, and he is enjoying the role: “It’s good fun. I mean, it’s hard work. It’s great meeting people from all walks of life.”

Brown was elected during the media circus prior to Tony Blair’s departure from 10 Downing Street and Gordon Brown’s subsequent ascension to the role, which caused some confusion among non-resident Manx voters. “I had constituents studying London, and when I sent manifestos down to them, other college students couldn’t get over that there was a Tony Brown, a Tony Blair and a Gordon Brown. People say ‘Oh, you must have a bit of both’,” he jokes.

No British Prime Minister has ever had any power over the island. Although it was ‘purchased’ by the British Crown in the 18th Century, it was never emalgamated into the United Kingdom, and as a result receives no funding, nor heeds to any demands from the British Government. Neither does the island receive benefits from, or make contributions to, the EU. The island is, however, a Crown Dependency, under the official control of the Queen, voluntarily paying a contribution to Britain for defence and common services.

When Brown was born in 1950, the island’s population stood at just over 50,000, and reliance upon shrinking agriculture, fishing and tourism industries was leading the island into economic decline. As employment dropped, immigration ground to a halt and people began to leave the island. When he entered the House of Keys for the first time in 1981, the first measures had been taken to ensure its economic future. A 1979 agreement with the UK allowed for the recuperation of VAT receipts, Protocol 3 of the UK’s 1972 Treaty of Accession to the EU grants the island special trade abilities while remaining outside of the EU, and the all-important tax rates had begun to be set below those of the UK.

In the years since, the island’s economy has swelled as a result. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the island’s GDP, at $2,719 million, ranks around 150th in the world, just below Mauritania, and comfortably above North Korea and Sierra Leone. On the per capita list, however, it sits slightly above the UK. Currently, the island’s population stands at just over 80,000. For comparison, in 2001 the population of York was just over 180,000.

While the low-taxation regime has undoubtedly boosted the Manx economy, Brown is eager to assure me that the island does not tolerate illegal tax-dodging. “There are still misunderstandings about the Isle of Man being a tax haven. We are a low tax area to the UK, just like the UK is a low tax area to Europe,” he emphasises. “We don’t agree with tax evasion or avoidance, and our record has proven that.”

Instead, Brown prefers to attribute the island’s successes to its unique political situation, and the abilities that brings. “Different is good. If the Isle of Man was part of the UK, I expect it would be very depopulated. It would not be very logical to the UK to have an island populated by 80,000 people. They could not make the differences that we make to encourage business here,” he says. “We see ourselves as the main player in the British Isles as an offshore jurisdiction. Our survival will be very much dependent upon how good we are at creating climates to encourage business to be done and managed through the Isle of Man.”

It is certain that independence from the UK has contributed immeasurably to the island’s dramatic economic revival, but Brown keenly stresses the common ground that the two countries share. “We are very active in playing our part in the British economy and way of life. We are Manx and proud of it,” he offers, sweeping his arm across the office, “but we are very much a part of the British Isles, and what it does. We can do both, it doesn’t cause a problem.”

For Manx students with university aspirations, however, both the island’s non-EU status and position outside of the UK do create a number of difficulties. Tuition fees, for example, are almost three times greater than for students from inside the EU, and Manx students are not eligible for student loans. Fees, however, are covered by the government, which also distributes grants to poorer students.

“We will send our students to anywhere in the world. We have students in Europe, the Americas, Australia and the UK,” says Brown. Footing the annual bill for the approximately 1,250 students that leave the island to study every year, however, does not come cheap. Last year’s budget allocation for university support stood at £11.5 million. However, in the last financial year, a total of £99.5 million was set aside for the Department of Education, representing over 18% of the £538 million budget. For the same period, the UK government earmarked only 13% of their budget for education. “It’s very expensive, but we believe that educating our young people is very important,” says Brown. It is evident that the opportunities afforded to young people are paramount to the Chief Minister: “We know that about 40% of our students don’t come back to the island, but we bother because we think that it is important to invest in our young people.” Brown, who does not hold a degree, appreciates the benefits of off-island study: “There is a lot of merit in our students going off the island. They get to meet other people, see a different way of life, and it breaks the point of only being on the Isle of Man.”

This is not to imply that life for young people on the island is perfect, as Brown admits. “The Isle of Man has its problems like any country,” he states when I question him about the rises in drug and alcohol-related incidents amongst young people on the island. “We do endeavour to thwart drug importation. We have to accept that we are potentially vulnerable in the middle of the Irish Sea, but we are successful in combatting it,” he counters. Damningly for Brown and his ministers, a March 2008 study by the Positive Action Group found that a quarter of island residents were binge drinkers, and labelled the government’s drinking strategy “a disaster”. This came only a month after island Home Affairs Minister Martyn Quayle admitted that “almost one in three A&E admissions of young people was because of alcohol.”

Forever the patriot, Brown defends the youth of the island: “The vast majority of our young people are fantastic. They want to get on with life, they want to enjoy themselves. They work hard, they are good citizens. They get involved in sport, music and the arts. We have invested in that.” But life for young people on the island can lead to alcohol or drug abuse. Breeshey Harkin, head girl at one of the island’s six secondary schools, feels that young people sometimes find the island quite cramped. “Although it’s a great place to grow up, at times it can be a bit suffocating. There isn’t a huge amount for young people to do over here, and entertainment is definitely limited,” she says. In the Facebook group ‘you know you’re Manx when…’, the information varies from the useful ‘You say you’re going “across” when you leave the island’, to the painful ‘You don’t need “Friends Reunited” to find the people that you went to school with. You just go to Douglas on Friday night’.
Brown and I discuss the strange reputation attributed to the island among some non-residents. Its eccentricities, communal nature, unusual history and isolated position have provided a mix of factors that commentators have find too tempting to pass up.

Food and television critic A.A. Gill caused uproar amongst local residents when he described the island as “a bit like the Falklands, except that nobody wants it back” in his Sunday Times column. Gill went on to write that he had taken his children there, as he thought it “important they get an idea of cultures that are different from their own and see remnants of a life that vanished from the rest of Europe decades ago.”

These comments came after a similar onslaught from Gill in January 2006, in a review of Manx restaurant Ciapelli’s. In it he described the island as “the last seriously draconian wee country left in western Europe,” and one of “a few places in the world that have managed to slip through a crack in the space-time continuum, or fallen off the back of the history lorry to lie amnesiac in the road to progress.” Gill also stated that “only reluctantly and recently have [island residents] been forced to give up public flogging and hunting homosexuals with dogs” and outlined the “competitive drinking and wife-swapping that makes up rural culture.” He ultimately gave the restaurant a very positive review.

The backlash was swift. A BBC feature by island resident Howard Caine described the comments as a “ribald mix of public school boy wit, [with] cheery disregard for factual accuracy”, and labelled the Sunday Times Style magazine, in which the review was published, “a sort of “Beano” for the over thirties.” CRONKY, commenting on the website, preferred the more direct attack: “Well, it’s happened again. That twat AA Gill has written another offensive article in the Times.”
Brown, naturally, is more diplomatic when asked about the comments. “I think it’s obvious he didn’t really know what he was talking about. If he had taken the time to research the island, he wouldn’t have made those statements. We are not draconian, we are very democratic. We are very accessible to our people.”

The Chief Minister constantly refers to both the island and the Manx people as ‘we’. Born and raised on the island, and a life-long resident, he is proud of what it has to offer: “We are different to the UK, but we are a very rural community. Is that a criticism? A lot of people in the UK say it must be great to live in a place where there aren’t pressures, where life is a lot easier.” He tells me that a group of British MPs are visiting the island today, and that they are enjoying the slower pace of life on the island “Their reaction is that it’s like stepping back in time. We are a modern and diverse economy, but the feeling of life over here is very relaxed,” says Brown.

Brown is not the only person to commend the Manx way of life. Actor Patrick Swayze reportedly stated while filming on the island: “I love it. It is a magical place and people have been really nice.” Jeremy Clarkson, who recently purchased a second home here, affectionately described it as “a thorn in the side of Tony Blair’s nanny state”, assumedly with reference to its lack of national speed limit.

But surely, I ask, does he not recognise the potential benefits for people to break free from the island? “There is a danger of being too insular, and a benefit for people going off-island,” he says. He is an accomplished traveller himself; saying that travelling has “broadened [his] outlook on life.” Brown also cites York as one of his preferred places for a break. “York is one of my favourite places; I’ve been on holiday many times there. One of my likes is heritage, so I just think York is a fabulous place, the way that it has been retained,” he says.

Notwithstanding his love of history, Brown is a man who is very focused on the future. Many island residents are concerned about the finacial bubble bursting, but Brown is excited to talk of bigger and better things. An island of 80,000 may not be the most predictable place for an international player in the space industry, but that means nothing to Brown. “We are in the space industry, in feeding funds through the island and managing them here. We are involved with satellites that go into space, and have worked with NASA and the International Space Agency,” he says, “they see the island as one of the few governments that is positively promoting and supporting the space industry.”

As my time with him comes to an end, Brown is amused to hear of Mad Captain Tom Scott’s unpredicted victory in the YUSU Presidential Election. “That’s politics for you,” he states, with a knowing smile. In similar fashion to Scott, and unlike his London namesake, Brown had no intentions of taking his current role, For a man who never intended to run a country, the Isle of Man – with its healthy economy and relaxed attitude – might just be the best place for Brown to govern. “We make good decisions, we make decisions that some people aren’t happy with. Someone has got to make them. All I ever do is what I believe to be right,” he surmises, before laughing, “They all say that don’t they?!”