No Man is an Isle — the Manx don’t let politics divide them

by Matt Box, Planner and Chris Hall, Account Manager, Ogilvy & Mather

Brexit. One of the most politically divisive events of the last century. But the one thing that united both camps was the fact that they had a say: they had skin in the game. What about those who weren’t given a vote?

As a crown dependency, the Isle of Man is one such place. Separated by over 20km of sea on all sides, the island was as removed from the responsibility of voting in the referendum as it is physically isolated from mainland Britain.

This edition of Get Out There began with a mission to uncover the potential isolation felt by the Manx population — and to explore how that influences their sense of identity.

End of the youth club

21-year-old engineering student George summed up the Isle of Man’s situation best:

“We’re an associate member [of the EU] because we are a crown dependency of the United Kingdom. So we’re like the United Kingdom’s little brother who he’s still kinda looking out for. Our big brother goes to youth club and every now and then when they’re passing sweets out at the youth club the UK’s little brother gets one as well.”

They didn’t get a say in the future of sweet distribution, but, whilst not everyone would look on the smaller brother analogy favourably, the thoughtful and measured distance from the issue was a common response.

Some respondents were envious of the British Overseas Territories (such as Gibraltar) that did get a vote. This was rare though, with most people effecting an air of resignation, happy that the decision was out of their hands. There was no sense of the isolation or powerlessness that we anticipated during the short flight over.

Whilst everyone had an opinion on which way they would have voted (50:50 in case you were wondering) those opinions weren’t anywhere near as involved as we became used to on the mainland. What became very clear was that their independence as a nation was more important than being given a Brexit vote.

Everyone that we spoke to on the island shared a stoic positivity. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the national motto of “whichever way you throw, it will stand”, a phrase that refers to the three legs that make up their coat of arms, the modern day translation of which seemed to be “we’ll probably be alright”. There was little concern with the outcome of an abstract proxy vote happening across the sea — and a pervasive belief that the people of the Isle of Man would make the best of it.

As Manx as the hills

Whilst people in mainland Britain began to identify as Brexiteers or Remainers — the national identity of the Manx people was unthreatened by the division represented by Brexit.

So what does being ‘Manx’ really mean?

On the island, both the meat and the people are referred to as ‘100% Manx’ — and whilst the meat can’t mix with anything from the mainland (due to their isolation from BSE), the people certainly do. We were warned throughout our trip that visitors from Britain, or ‘comeovers’, often received a frosty reception. Whilst the wind was bitter, the warmth of our hosts was the complete opposite as proven by our hotel upgrade, frequent offers of tea in shops we visited and the general friendliness we experienced (I had a pleasant chat with someone working in airport security for the first time in my life).

Beyond the welcoming atmosphere, there were several contradictions that characterised our experience. The traditional businesses of agriculture and tourism are in the process of being usurped by tax-exempt banking and engineering practises — and the new power player in the national economy, e-gaming. The staunch belief in local business contrasts with the fact that many Manx people want to see more large chains established in the country.

Perhaps most interesting was their enduring superstition. You cannot say R.A.T without letting forth a quick whistle afterwards unless you want to risk infestation that has historically threatened island wildlife. There are also fairy bridges and ghoulish kid’s stories that make the Brothers Grim look like Peppa Pig. Compare this to their staunch pragmatism — when asked about Brexit, two delightful older ladies responded with “get a grip lads” — and it’s hard to know what to think.

Despite all of the apparent paradoxes, we kept returning to the strong sense of national pride felt by every resident. Regardless of whether people were born on the island, had left and come back, or were Egyptian-Manx (like a particular taxi driver) most agreed that the Isle of Man is great. This good-natured, yet irrefutable belief in the island was awe-inspiring to experience — and more powerful than any of the above contradictions.

The Manx identity seems as steadfast as their parliament, and whilst there are threats on the horizon (particularly in the schisms between local and newer, international businesses), on the evidence of our stay it’s unlikely to fracture any time soon. As we begin to worry about what post-Brexit Britain might look like, it may be worth casting an eye towards our island neighbours. Fiercely proud of their culture yet unafraid of the outside connections they need to thrive — the Isle of Man is a shining example of how shared heritage can keep a nation together.

As for Brexit — we’ll refer back to George who told us:

“The sweets might stop but hopefully the fun will continue.”

Fingers crossed…