20th July 2018
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Shetland Life: Editorial

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The limitations of democracy

After an extended period of head-burying and procrastination, it now appears that change is going to come to Shetland Charitable Trust. The trust, which currently acts like a versatile prosthetic arm of the council, has been asked by the charities regulator OSCR to come up with proposals aimed at distancing itself from the SIC. Since 22 of the 24 current trustees are also councillors, it is fairly clear what this request will entail.

So sooner or later there are going to be quite a lot of empty seats around the charitable trust table, and someone is going to have to think of a way to fill them.

The Trusts Reform Group (TRG), which appeared on the scene last year to shout about this very issue, has made it clear that its preferred option for selecting new trustees is direct elections. And there is nothing quite like the impassioned cry of “Democracy!” to rally the swithering troops.

At this point I find myself just a little hesitant to continue. Wading into a debate and saying “No” to democracy is more than enough to get yourself accused of Stalinism or some other such crime. But never mind, it is worth saying anyway: democracy is not always the answer. Democracy has its limitations, and in a small place such as Shetland those limitations can be all too visible.

The direct election of public officials is fairly commonplace in the United States, for all kinds of jobs, but in Britain it is restricted to politicians and, in some cities, mayors. The reasons for this are simple: firstly, most of us couldn’t be bothered to vote for appointments to dozens of jobs we don’t know much about; and secondly, it tends to be more effective for potential candidates to be judged on suitability rather than on popularity. There is, too, a peculiar tendency in non-governmental elections for “quirky” candidates to win over competent ones. Consider, for example, the city of Hartlepool, whose residents elected a man wearing a monkey suit, offering “free bananas for schoolchildren”, as their mayor. And London elected Boris Johnson!

The charitable trust is a very important body, and trustees have a significant job to do. The trust would benefit, I think, from the diversity of skills, knowledge and viewpoints that could be gained through a fair and transparent process of interviews and appointments, specifically aimed at increasing that diversity. I certainly do not wish to see councillors appointing cronies to replace themselves, but there are ways of avoiding such a situation.

Of course, all of this misses the crucial, unspoken point, which is the windfarm. An election of trustees could very easily result in a charitable trust dominated by opponents of the project, and that could spell serious trouble for Viking Energy. But it could also spell serious trouble for the trust itself, and while I would be absolutely delighted to see an end to Viking Energy, I think it would be a serious tragedy for the trust to become bogged down and paralysed by single-issue campaigners. The end, in this case, does not justify the means. (See, I’m not a Stalinist.)

* * *

Rather than being rubber stamped, as would be the normal procedure, the decision of whether or not to give an essential £25,000 grant to Shetland Livestock Marketing Group last month was instead put before councillors, who, in their infinite lack of wisdom, refused it. Well, actually they offered half the money, which in the circumstances was the same as refusing it. There was clearly some confusion about the matter in the minds of a few members, who apparently saw this as an opportunity to put a stop to the “controversial” plans for a new abattoir in Scalloway. But as Shetland Abattoir Co-operative Limited is an entirely separate organisation, they failed. Instead, they gave Shetland’s crofters and farmers a kick in the face, for no apparent reason.

Agriculture has long been treated like the poor cousin to fishing in Shetland, particularly by councillors whose only understanding of value is pounds and pence. But even so, the complete failure to comprehend the gravity of this particular decision was astonishing. The result, if it is not overturned, is that SLMG is almost certain to cease operating, as will Shetland Marts. This is seriously bad news for the islands’ crofters and farmers, and it has to be hoped that councillors wake up to their mistake and promptly change their minds.

Malachy Tallack