Politics & culture: Our Baltic counterpart

Adam Grydehøj finds parallels with Shetland in the islands of Åland, and discovers how political autonomy has benefited the archipelago.

This June, I was in the Åland archipelago for a conference about island branding. It was only when Shetland Life’s editor mentioned it to me that I realized these islands are located at 60° North, the same latitude as Shetland. Åland is poorly known in these parts, which is a pity because, even disregarding their relation to the equator, Åland and Shetland have a lot in common. Åland lies between Sweden and Finland, both politically and geographically. The archipelago is part of Finland, but in an imperialistic legacy, over 90 per cent of the islands’ 27,000 inhabitants are native Swedish speakers. Åland was culturally Swedish even before Sweden took control of Finland in the thirteenth century, but the archipelago’s status became confused when it was conquered, along with Finland proper, by the Russians in 1809. In the 1856 Treaty of Paris, following the Crimean War, the victorious powers offered Sweden the opportunity to reclaim Åland from the defeated Russians. Crucially, Sweden declined: its government was concerned that the Russians might attempt to reconquer the islands, and it felt that Swedish interests would be better served by obtaining Russia’s cooperation in demilitarizing the archipelago.

In 1917, Finland declared its independence from the collapsing Russian empire. This complicated matters for the Ålanders, who had been pressing Sweden to assert its sovereignty over the islands. As a result, one of the first responsibilities of the newly-independent Finnish state was to manage the demands of a breakaway province. When the Ålanders rejected Finland’s offer of autonomy, Sweden and Finland brought the issue before the League of Nations, which in 1921 came up with a compromise: Finland retained ownership over Åland; the Ålanders were granted self-governance and were ensured the preservation of their Swedish culture; and Sweden won reassurances that Åland would remain demilitarized and would be militarily neutral.

The basic structure of Åland’s autonomy is as follows: Åland is governed by a parliament comprised of 31 MPs elected by archipelago-wide proportional representation. The islands are also represented in Finnish Parliament, which is necessary since Helsinki retains control over foreign policy, the courts, and taxes. All in all though, Åland possesses remarkable “jurisdictional capacity” (the de facto or de jure ability to make decisions) for a region of its size and population.

Åland’s autonomy has worked out remarkably well for the islands, almost certainly better than if the islanders had won their desired reunification with Sweden back in 1917. In fact, the most troublesome aspect of Åland’s autonomy is the preservation of the local culture. There are complex regional citizenship laws, and Swedish is the only official language in Åland, leading some Finns to feel discrimination in what is, more or less, their own country. Frankly speaking, Åland’s Swedish culture has been maintained at the expense of human rights and by persistent efforts to minimize Finnish cultural influence. Nevertheless, most Ålanders are not too concerned about this apparent ethical dilemma, and they have the philosophy that as long as the Ålanders are allowed the keep their Åland, the Finns can keep their Finland.

Much of the action in Åland takes place in Mariehamn, a peninsular town with around 10,000 inhabitants. In striking contrast to Lerwick, the houses of sprawling Mariehamn are spacious, delicately timbered, and tend to possess a fair-sized lawn. This is because Mariehamn, which was only founded in 1861, is the result of Russian imperial planning and was designed in a grid system, complete with two wide, linden-lined esplanades that split the town centre into quarters. While the cultural and arts sectors are not quite as well provided for by the government in Åland as they are by the trusts in Shetland, Mariehamn is nevertheless home to a number of art galleries, a combined art and history museum, an old windjammer-turned-museum, and the best maritime museum I have ever visited. It is definitely a lovely town in which to have a wander.

Still, tourists do not come to these islands to see Mariehamn. Like Shetland, Åland markets itself to cyclists, but unlike Shetland, Åland really means it. A vast network of bicycle paths passes past the countryside’s leafy forests, flowering meadows, and gorgeous seascapes. The meeting of land and ocean is magical here, in these islands where heaps of red-grey granite bulge down from the forests and into the shallow bays. The bicycle paths lead to all of Åland’s major sites, including a medieval Swedish castle, Russian fortifications, and lookout towers that provide scenic vistas over the sea of 6500 isles. The paths even connect with the ferries that sail to the archipelago’s smaller islands.

Mariehamn was a maritime powerhouse a hundred years ago, and it still is today. Around 40 large passenger ferries (as many as 2500 passengers per boat) visit the harbour daily. This is not because the islands are such a huge tourist draw, but because Åland’s autonomy allows tax-free trade for boats plying the Baltic between Sweden, Finland, and Estonia. In 2004, the transport industry as a whole provided about a third of the islands’ gross domestic product. This percentage is decreasing however, as other autonomy-benefiting industries (like online gambling) grow in importance. It is worth recalling that Finland retains power over taxation in Åland. That said, the local government receives a generous tax rebate from Helsinki, and this system both protects Åland against financial instability and rewards it for economic success.

Some Ålanders are concerned that increases in the power of the EU – of which Åland is a member with special status – are detrimental to the exercise of local authority. The evidence, however, is mixed. People are always likely to complain about external decision making, but the consensus at the conference I attended was that use of the euro and membership in the common market was beneficial for the local economy. Furthermore, there is a school of thought that holds that expansion of EU jurisdiction actually empowers actors at the sub-state level: however much jurisdiction is being transferred from local authorities to the EU, far more is being transferred from central governments to the EU, meaning that local authorities are gaining strength vis-à-vis central governments.

While in Åland, I was struck by the extent to which the islands’ legal status provides the locals with a culture of inspiration. For example, I met numerous young men and women who felt able to tackle the international big issues of the day. This seems absent in Shetland, where the community, which surely possess just as deep a talent pool, sets its sights considerably lower. Nor can this be entirely explained by the old commonplace that Shetlanders have been made lazy by an oil-bloated SIC. Ålanders are by no means lacking cushy government jobs; they have to stock their own parliament with employees, not to mention its accompanying executive apparatus. Rather, the very fact of autonomy seems to inspire Ålanders to become major actors in the international realm. Part of the issue, I suspect, is that Shetlanders share something of the Orcadian (and Danish) disdain for self-aggrandizement and are thus suspicious of taking on positions or attending gatherings that could be construed as elitist. In Åland though, I was heartened to note wide participation in the conference at which I presented. A community not much larger than Shetland can support a political-economic-academic axis that considers the opinions of all sorts of experts. These interdisciplinary relationships have been made “everyday” to a degree unknown in Shetland.

In Åland, local democracy only really took off in the 1970s, after the parliament became split along party lines. Only then could MPs speak about policy in an overarching sense. Compare this with Shetland’s non-party structure, in which most winning candidates are independents and run on broadly-similar platforms. The SIC’s lack of a credible, unified alternative to the Liberal Democrat bloc has produced political stagnation. At least, it is unimaginable that issues like the fixed link to Bressay, the new high school, the cinema and music venue, and wind power prospects could drag on for so long without resolution in a multi-party parliament.

The payoff to all this is the question of whether Shetland could ever – and would ever want to – achieve Åland-style autonomy. I am sure that the last thing anyone wants is yet another outsider lecturing about Shetland autonomy, but please bear with me.

When considering the possibilities for such a system in Shetland, it is vital to be honest about why Shetland might seek greater legal autonomy. If the reasons are cultural, then it is well precedented, since National Romanticism has been the source of most autonomy/independence movements in Northern Europe over the past few centuries. Hence the independence or semi-autonomy of, for example, Norway, Faroe, Iceland, Finland, Åland, and Ireland. Be that as it may, virtually no major government today would consider National Romanticism to be a reasonable argument for autonomy. The ideology is widely seen as having had its day, and its recent successes have either been strategic (for example, Western support for nationalist separatist movements in the Soviet Union) or a last resort (for example, as an excuse for stopping Balkan bloodshed). The explanation is probably that central governments of multi-national states (countries with populations consisting of various cultural/ethnic groups) have an in-borne aversion to ideologies promoting divisive nation states.

The glaring exception here is, of course, the current Scottish independence movement. The SNP is unusual inasmuch as its staunchest supporters are more economic than cultural nationalists. I doubt though that the SNP or Scottish Parliament would exist at all were it not for the Scots’ pre-existing international reputation for being different from the English. In fact, although today’s SNP is not romanticist, it originated in the explicitly-romantic National Party of Scotland: Scottish nationalism gradually evolved from being about culture to being about the economy.

But what if the motivations for Shetland autonomy were primarily economic? Never, to my knowledge, has a region won autonomy or independence on economic grounds alone, at least not without recourse to armed conflict. After all, the argument that Shetland might benefit if it controlled its own finances and taxation is, from a UK perspective, meaningless. By analogy, few people would support granting Notting Hill autonomy just because its inhabitants would be better off if they did not have to pay UK taxes. Any debate about autonomy must be at least partially grounded in cultural distinctiveness, which means swimming against the tide of history. It would also require convincing the world that Shetlanders are sufficiently distinct from their erstwhile countrymen to warrant independence.

There is no doubt that Shetlanders are different, but are Shetlanders different enough? Are Shetlanders more different from the people of Edinburgh than the people of Edinburgh are from the Highlanders? Are they more different from the folk of Northeast England than the folk of Northeast England are from the Welsh? Should all of these peoples be independent?

Åland is not perfect. There are arguably unsavoury aspects to its role in the global economy, and its autonomy is built upon some debatable ethnocentric foundations. Moreover, the archipelago benefits from a central geographic location. The Åland experience proves, however, that Shetland-sized municipalities do not necessarily lack the expertise to get things done on their own, and it suggests that an important step in bringing together a body of qualified politicians and policy workers is to build a system in which they can wield responsibility. Nor does this automatically imply independence. The 1974 Zetland County Council Act has already provided the SIC with the potential to become one of the most powerful municipal authorities in the UK. Shetland’s jurisdictional capacity is second to none in this country. The fact that Shetland does not exploit this capacity to the fullest is hardly the fault of the governments in London and Edinburgh.

If Shetland wants more autonomy, it needs the will to move boldly within the current system. Once we have reached the limits of what is already possible, then we can start talking about the impossible.


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