The thing would appear to be: Britain finds it very difficult to change. Countries can change – witness Germany and Japan. These were the most dangerous forces on the entire planet for several decades.
They instigated jointly the greatest set of conflicts ever seen to the extent that it became clear to the great industrialised nations of the world that such a thing could never be repeated.
Now both countries are good neighbours and are transformed utterly. And importantly for the points I would make, governed entirely differently. Their ruling classes were comprehensively defeated and that discredited class had little or no say in what followed after.
Britain’s ruling class never has found itself in that condition: the condition where, it appears, change can become possible. Every attempt to actually change radically the way this country is in relationship to its population and to the world at large has run into the sand.
In fact it’s worse than that. We, the UK, have actively opposed any positive dynamic. Take the European Union. From halting and self-interested beginnings it became the best thing to come out of Europe’s terrible mid century.
Not only has Britain failed to participate whole heartedly. Worse, Britain has single-mindedly undermined and sabotaged any attempt to build the union. The shabby remnants of the British empire aligned with the resurgent Murdoch empire. Well may you say first as tragedy then as farce.
Now the Murdoch empire itself, previously monolithic and impervious, seems to be collapsing, loosening its hold over Great Britain. But does that mean, as some of the more optimistic seem to think, that all will get better? Well, we will see. But past history suggests not. The Daily Mail and Sunday Mail will not be much of an improvement over The Sun and the News of the World and we always seem to slip back into our old ways.
Of course, of the great, so of the small and the parts of the union very much share the qualities of the whole. That is, perhaps, an argument for separation from the Union, for the break-up of the United Kingdom? That it no longer has the capacity to serve the purposes it was designed for. That it is in perpetual decline and has no will to arrest that decline? That Scotland should part company in order to change?
There is precious little evidence so far – mere assertions from the separatists backed by no kind of case as to why separation is desirable. It just is. At the same time, nothing but mutterings and dire warnings from the other side. We would have ended up another Ireland (once such a desirable state!), or Iceland, likewise, but now both a hissing and a byword.
Maybe we would and maybe we would not. For my part I tend to think not – RBS not withstanding. Scotland seems to have a profundity of conservatism, of domination by the very traditional professional classes and incapacity to imagine a future that it seems likely to me that much of the worst may have been avoided. But that is all mere hypotheses.
What is important now is that Scotland is going to have a chance to speak on whether the population wishes to sever links with, at least, the UK Parliament. For some reason or other the separatists seem determined to cling to a United Kingdom under the greatest of all guarantors that real change may not happen – the monarch.
For us, though, the whole business must be an opportunity to consider what we want. It appears that this is difficult for us here in Shetland. We share the overall conservatism and resistance to change which is sometimes a strength but far more often a weakness with all the other parts of the kingdom.
So what do we want? Well, first of all, can anyone disagree with the following statement? Rule from Edinburgh has been no improvement on rule from Westminster.
A very good argument can be made for stating that it has been worse. It is nearer, more bureaucratic and official dominated with an absence of any imaginative strokes or confidence in any elected politician. It has been like that under successive Scottish governments since 1999. I see no suggestions that we have any leadership or prospective leadership in Scotland who would wish to change that.
Devolution reached Edinburgh where it was made, very firmly, a prisoner. Everything since has been, by accident or design, consolidation. Local government all the way through and, since 2007, any form of regional activity have become more and more constrained and ruled by the various Edinburgh buildings: Victoria Quay, Saughton House, crammed with our civil service masters, has become more and more micro-management.
So, I ask again, should we be asked either to move to Scottish self-government or to greater devolution. What in concrete terms do we want? I mean we in Shetland? If we knew that and asserted it with confidence we might get both sides to offer it. We could then go forward with some confidence and clarity and that would, hopefully, lead to some improvement in our own rather pitiful local government, dominated by the unspoken motto: “Dey wid nivver lat wis!”. There is nothing so favourable to the status quo as severely self limited ambition among the governed, the failure to even cherish the idea of something better in the imagination.
So what do we want? Not anything on the wilder shores, I am sure. We won’t be joining Norway and we won’t be seeking independence. We, I suggest just want some of what they have – some more devolution within a good settlement with either Westminster or Edinburgh.
We want to be able to design our own body of local governance, preferably one which could take charge of all public functions in Shetland. We want it to have powers to deal with these as the settled view suggests is best and we want to have responsibility along with power.
We need to have our ideas on the subject ready over the next 12 months and we need to present them to both sides and hear their offers. You never know, somebody might develop enough gumption to listen. The careless destruction of local government which has marked the past decade, under the dozy stewardship of Cosla, is a mistake and central government will come to regret it. Good local governance is vital in a complex society and extreme centralism inefficient.
The SNP is new to government, either national or local. Their excuse is that they simply have not thought about it. Well they should start. Labour has no such excuse with its proud history in Clyde municipalism. It can only beg pardon for stopping thinking altogether and promise to complete its homework on the spot.
As far as we are concerned this is the most important moment for Shetland in our lifetimes and if we don’t make the best of it we have no one to blame but ourselves. What’s all this “Scotland’s Oil” nonsense!