12th December 2017

Politics: Democracy in the isles

A Shetland student has recently completed a comprehensive database of the islands’ political history, and the results are now available online. Chris Cope spoke to James Stewart about his work.

Spending your summer scouring through archives for nuggets of political information isn’t generally high on anyone’s agenda, but for one student, this was certainly the case.

James Stewart, a final year student of politics at Aberdeen University, passed his summer days compiling an online database of every election result recorded in Shetland.

The quest for historical accuracy began after Stewart, originally from Lerwick, discovered the records in Shetland weren’t quite up to scratch.
“This summer I worked with Alistair Carmichael at Westminster and he asked me to get some election related data,” he said. “When I contacted the council I discovered that they had insufficient historical records, so when I got back to Shetland I popped into the archives to discuss my idea with Brian Smith – whose interest in politics and vast knowledge of Shetland became immensely useful throughout the project – who sorted out the financial side of it, as he is experienced in obtaining grants for archival purposes. With a council grant secured, I began my work around the second week of June.”

The database’s timescale spans from 1818, the year of the first Lerwick Town Council election, to the 2009 European Parliament elections, and the task of researching such a vast collection of data was tough for Stewart, but he was adamant he would complete it. “I didn’t realise how much work it was going to be actually. Some days I would be at the archives from 10am to 4pm, then return home and update the online database until the early hours of the morning,” he said. “When I reached the last of the 1960s and The Shetland Times grew to around 30 pages it certainly seemed like I would struggle, especially as the only place I could access the information was in the archives and library, which are only open during the day. Hard as the project was, I was absolutely determined to complete it, even if did mean working longer hours.”

His mentor in Westminster, Shetland and Orkney MP Alistair Carmichael, was suitably impressed with Stewart’s work. “Politics in the isles is unique and here are the hard facts to prove it. As a self-confessed political anorak I thought it was fascinating to work through it,” he said. “James was a star in the London office. His analytical skills are very good but more importantly he has a freshness and enthusiasm for politics. He was a breath of Shetland fresh air in Westminster.”

It is perhaps the fact that this project was lead by a 21 year old that is the most surprising. In times when politics – in the eyes of many young people – comes across as arbitrary and untrustworthy, to see a young man launch head first into politics belies the stereotypes. “For me, politics has always been something of interest, regardless of whether I’m being disillusioned or hugely inspired by it. Although I don’t necessarily agree with all their politics, I have voted Liberal Democrats at any election I have been able to and I have always thought that they would be refreshing change in politics. I’m sure they would ignite change, but people have good cause to be disillusioned sometimes.”

Carmichael however believes that the younger generation do indeed play an important role in politics and are concerned with issues just as much as their elders. “The supposed lack of interest in politics is one of the media’s favourite stories and in a sense it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have never found it to be true. No-one who attended the rally in the Clickimin that kicked off the Shetland For Sakchai campaign a few years ago would have left thinking that young people were disinterested in politics,” he said. “I still find that young people are at least as concerned as people of any age when it comes to thinking about political issues. In the case of some of the really big and important issues such as climate change I would say that serious engagement is greater amongst the young than it is amongst the middle aged and older people.”

Why Shetland for this study? The islands float hundreds of miles from the two homes of its main political parents, Holyrood in Edinburgh and London’s Westminster, and its small, rural population is a tiny blot on the UK’s map. “Shetlanders do like their politics, and given that we are a small isolated island, I was interested to see if politics was different than down on the mainland,” said Stewart. “There were quite a few instances I found when reading through the council minutes where the council had received a letter from London instructing them to enact a new law parliament had set, but often the council would dismiss some of the more frivolous pieces of legislation as not necessary for Shetland. I would imagine that due to the lack of communication links, no-one was checking up on them. It was a learning experience for me and I hope that the Shetland public and wider world can get as much out of the database as I have,” he added. “I have found relatives of mine who were councillors and indeed one of the first ‘uses’ of the database was to help a family who were researching the name surname Goodlad.”

Despite its location, Shetland does indeed hold relative political and historical significance; Orkney and Shetland is perhaps the longest recognised constituency in Britain, with its boundaries officially recognised in 1702, and the isles also holds the UK record for longest single-party representation, as residents have voted Liberal candidates into Westminster consistently since 1950.

Stewart’s database also reveals a number of significant moments in Shetland’s own political history. The results of the 1935 council elections shows Charlotte Nicol being elected as Shetland’s first female councillor, whilst, for example, you can also browse the results of the inaugural Scottish Parliament election in 1999, in which Liberal Democrat candidate Tavish Scott gained a resounding 54.5 per cent of the votes.

A future in politics is certainly a consideration for Stewart, who dipped his toes in the political whirlpool of Westminster this summer, shadowing Shetland’s MP Alistair Carmichael. And for Stewart, it highlighted just how much work the bustling politicians have to put in to represent their people. “After working with Alistair Carmichael this summer I can assure you that Westminster is not a golden palace where the MPs have an easy time of it,” he said. “Although I was working with Alistair he seldom had time to be at his desk as he was always rushing off to attend debates, meet delegations and participate in the Commons discussions. Alistair may be an exception to the rule, but he definitely restored a little bit of faith for me that there are hard working individuals in parliament who represent us the best they can.”

Stewart told me that he was interested in possibly undertaking a post-graduate course in America once his time in Aberdeen is up, and despite a political career potentially in the pipeline, his seemingly insatiable appetite for the study of politics is set to continue. And amidst all the numbers and statistics in his database, and also the grand social narrative of the demise of the younger generation, this is perhaps the most pertinent issue here. “I love learning,” he said, “so I’d like to be education for years to come.”

Chris Cope

James Stewart’s political database can be accessed at www.shetlopedia.com/politics