The isles and the referendum: some observations
It is notable – but hardly surprising – that Tavish Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur have chosen to respond with their seven-and-a-bit page document to the UK government’s consultation on the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future, but not the Scottish government’s own Your Scotland Your Referendum exercise.
In his comments on BBC Scotland’s Politics Show yesterday Mr Scott appeared to accept Alex Salmond’s proposed timetable for a referendum in the autumn of 2014.
Whether that was a slip or not – the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government is pushing for a much earlier poll – it is the only common ground the staunch Unionist politician shares with the First Minister on Scotland’s constitutional future.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ disastrous showing in the Holyrood election last year, and Mr Scott’s decision to stand down as leader, have placed him in a marginal position in Scottish politics.
That has given him time to start thinking about how Shetland ought to position itself prior to rather than after the referendum. It also allows him to make mischief as only opposition politicians can do.
Observers will note the familiar, and absolutely justified, theme of centralisation – the SNP has continued a trend that began in the 1960s of continually chipping away at local autonomy, although not just in the Northern Isles.
Regular readers of The Shetland Times will recognise much of what he and Mr McArthur say in their document, which is to be widely circulated in the Northern Isles in the hope of provoking debate locally.
“Since 2007 the SNP government’s approach to public administration has been the centralisation of services and decision-making across a wide range of areas,” the MSPs argue. “This is not consistent with local accountability nor does it fulfill the hopes of those who saw the creation of a Scottish Parliament as the means of devolving power within and not just to Scotland.
“Fire and rescue, police, local colleges, court services, economic development, construction contracts and supporting professional services such as architects, surveyors and civil engineering are all being brought under national central belt control or a regionalised structure that is removing decision-making and accountability from the islands.
“In education too, there are increasing signs of a ‘Minister knows best’ approach to all aspects of teaching and school management. Islanders are understandably concerned that decision-making in local schools is being micro-managed from Edinburgh. The scale of the budget and top-down initiatives – such as the introduction of a ‘Scottish Studies’ course into an already over-crowded school curriculum – only serve to fuel those fears.”
Changes to the Air Discount Scheme, introduced by Mr Scott when he was in government, the alleged political calculations behind shipping policy (favouring the Western Isles over the Northern Isles) and the nefarious impact of the European Union on fishing and agriculture receive an airing.
But the paper becomes really interesting when the discussion turns to oil and gas. If, they argue, the case for Scottish independence rests on a geographical share of the revenue from North Sea and West of Shetland oil and gas taxation, there is a “strong argument for applying this principle and logic to the Northern Isles”. Many people in the isles, they say, would take issue with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that Shetland is not a nation. They are effectively proposing that Shetland and Orkney have a right to the tax revenue from oil and gas production around their shores – a large proportion of the revenue that would accrue to an independent Scotland, however the map is sliced up.
The problem with this argument, as I see it, is that there is no equivalent of the SNP in Shetland, no cohesive and organised group which might be able to push people into positions of power on the council advocating that Shetland (and indeed Orkney) should go it alone as there was in the 1970s and 1980s. That may change, of course, but the key council election is in May and so far the only serious figure to suggest hame rule is outgoing convener Sandy Cluness.
Of course Mr Scott should be pushing for the best possible deal for Shetland, but he says he does not believe that Scotland, never mind Shetland, will vote for independence, so this is surely political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position.
The parallel they draw with the 1970s, when Shetland secured the financially advantageous Zetland County Council Act (1974) and coralled the oil companies into one location at Sullom Voe, and now, doesn’t seem quite right: then, the government was hell-bent on getting the tax loot quickly and prepared to make concessions; now, the revenues are declining and we live in an age of austerity; then, Shetland was blessed with councillors with foresight, energy and determinaton; now, the council is still recovering from a disastrous decade and doing the basics well will be the key task for the new intake.
Mr Scott and Mr McArthur are on firmer ground, or seabed, when they argue that an end to Crown Estate involvement in the Northern Isles and the devolution of the marine estate to local authorities and harbour boards.
“Such a change has the potential to enhance marine development, financially assist the aquaculture industry and ensure that creating facilities for new and developing industries such as marine renewables and decommissioning would not face an additional tax regime.”
The MSPs conclude with three options which the Northern Isles could seek:
- To retain their current constitutional position within the UK and as part of Scotland but negotiate additional responsibility over key public sector areas.
- Enhanced powers or independence from Scotland if Scotland were to vote for independence but the Northern isles voted no. The SNP’s policy at successive elections conceded the Northern Isles’ right to their own self-determination.
- Enhanced constitutional and tax status within the UK. The Faroes provide one model with links to Denmark. Closer to home the Isle of Man and Channel Islands offer various models of island communities that constitute themselves in different ways from the rest of the UK.
And they conclude: “Shetland and Orkney may never have a stronger opportunity to negotiate a future for the islands which can benefit the economy, culture and identity in the wider world for the advantage of future generations of Islanders. There are obvious risks for the Northern Isles from ignoring this opportunity, not least as it will limit our ability to argue against the drift of public policy delivery to the central belt and the consequential loss of local accountability.
“Orkney and Shetland should establish their objectives as island communities in this period of constitutional upheaval and use their inherent advantages as leverage with both the UK and Scottish governments.”
Let’s hope Mr Scott’s and Mr McArthur’s stated aim of getting the debate going here in the isles works; it’s too important to be left to the fantasists in some quarters of the national media.