A SMALL but enthusiastic crowd turned out at Gott School on Saturday night to welcome the speakers for the first of this year’s Althing debates.
The motion for the evening, that “Shetlan’ is no as weel aff is it maks oot”, was well met by the participants who all gave lively speeches that forced a close call at the end of the evening.
The vote at the beginning of the evening was: seven for the motion, six against the motion with 10 abstentions.
First to speak for the motion was Ronnie Eunson, who began his speech by readily admitting that Shetland would appear to be well off on the surface, having a seemingly affluent, stable community. But if we were to really sit down and give an honest appraisal of Shetland, we would discover cracks in the infrastructure.
He explained that in days gone by hunger and poverty were the motivation for self-improvement – we now no longer face these issues, we are comfortable. So maybe we think we don’t need to improve.
Mr Eunson gave examples of distant communities that appeared to be really well off and acted the part – Iceland seemed to have a booming economy until very recently. Suddenly the Icelandic economy is in meltdown to the point that there is talk of scrapping their currency. Maybe Shetland had also fallen into this trap of merely appearing wealthy?
He suggested that perhaps Shetland’s wealth was an illusion born out of misplaced arrogance that went alongside misplaced spending; for all the seeming wealth there was little to show for it nowadays, the old values having been lost. The fishing industry is now propped up by the Scottish government and fish farming, which at one time seemed to be a real solution for Shetland’s future economy, has now become a satellite of the Norwegian industry.
Mr Eunson said that even the money brought in by the oil industry which fuelled Shetland’s boom years in the 1970s had now reduced to a trickle and amounted to peanuts in real terms when compared to the money that giants like BP were making.
As for agriculture and food production, he concluded by saying because of new agricultural policies there has never been so little produced on the land of Shetland as nowadays.
Drew Ratter was quick to counter the points raised in Mr Eunson’s speech. He said: “Is Shetland well off? Of course it is. We have no public debts, apart from a housing debt but that is very obscure, how many councils in the UK could make that sort of claim?”
Mr Ratter explained how Shetland had developed its own welfare state system, providing very high standards of care in the community for the community. Care homes and health provision for the elderly or those needing extra care were second to none in Shetland.
“We have subsidised travel, much more so than other island communities,” he said. “The shipping subsidy to Shetland amounts to £30 million each year.
“We have one of the best local museums in the country and we are about to get a centre for the creative industries. The price of food in Shetland is affordable despite concerns that it is not always.”
After making these opening statements, Mr Ratter went on to back up his arguments with some very relevant then and now examples.
Many years ago a bottle of whisky would cost 40 shillings. People in Shetland would buy in a “Christmas bottle” and three bottles of whisky would cost the equivalent of a week’s wages. How many bottles of whisky could you pick off Tesco’s shelves now for a week’s wages?
A man would have to work for about one hour in days gone by to pay for one gallon of petrol. Despite the alarming rise in fuel prices and going by an average wage, a man would only have to work for about half an hour now to pay for a gallon of petrol.
Mr Ratter raised some humour in the audience by quoting an example of a visit to the mart. He said that 20 or 30 years ago, farmers would turn up at the mart in their old post office vans with the back doors tied up with a bit of string.
Nowadays the mart car park was full of pick-ups with 2007 and even 2008 plates, and many of the farmers no longer had sheep in the back of their post office vans, they had Ifor Williams trailers. “Not any old Ifor Williams trailers, only the top of the range Ifor Williams trailers.”
Mr Ratter pointed out that Shetland has less than one per cent unemployment and education is available to everybody when in days gone past it was only available to very few.
Shetland now seemed to have a “piers for all” policy with every nearly every voe in Shetland getting its own pier. There are nine community halls in Yell alone – for about 800 people. There are 10 swimming pools in the isles and our roads are some of the best too.
Mr Ratter concluded by saying that maybe it was a case of the old adage that “people don’t know when they are well off”.
Gary Robinson seconded the motion. He read from a letter written in 1958 by John Ratter from Cullivoe in which Mr Ratter spoke of poor weather, poor fishing and tie-ups linked to quota regulations.
Mr Robinson asked the audience how much had changed in real terms? He quoted Harold Macmillan: “We have never had it so good.” In the late 1970s and 1980s that was very true of Shetland, but 20 years on it is all dwindling away and along with the money leaving the islands is the population, especially the young who are really needed to maintain prosperity for the future.
But Mr Robinson said: “All the uncertainty over economies and futures hasn’t quelled people’s appetites for money and ensuing wealth, but it cannot continue. Things can turn around and for the worse. As well as gains, Shetland has made losses too, no new council houses are being built, private building is going ahead at a pace but this is bound to impact on private debt which will no doubt have a wider effect in the future. We have lost a sense of community. Nowadays, anywhere within a 15-mile radius of Lerwick basically means Lerwick.
“Drugs are a problem in Shetland, and there are areas of poverty and deprivation. In days gone by people looked after their own. That doesn’t happen anymore, communities are fragmented and the lovely country halls that were built are all struggling.”
Mr Robinson concluded that perhaps it was the community that was not as well off as it thought. Council houses in rural areas are lying empty and there are threats of school closures. Finances are often misdirected and the powers that be are sometimes criticised for getting priorities wrong.
Chris Bunyan added to Mr Ratter’s speech with a whole list of the benefits that Shetland has compared to other similar sized populations whether on islands or the mainland.
He explained that Shetland enjoys many facilities that local authorities and communities in other areas can only dream of. At nearly all the health centres in Shetland you can get a same day appointment with a GP that you know and you can request to see the GP you want to see. The accident and emergency department at the Gilbert Bain Hospital has no worries about patients having to wait for hours to be seen or worse still, being left on trolleys in corridors.
Mr Bunyan stated that life expectancy is greater in Shetland, two years longer than the Scottish average and five years longer than in Glasgow and despite recent speculation, the Shetland population is not more obese than any other part of Scotland.
He pointed out the more spiritual benefits that we have in Shetland if we move away from thinking about money for a moment. Wonderful landscapes and scenery, peace and quiet, a more relaxed pace of life, beautiful beaches that we think are crowded if even one more person turns up on it, and wonderful wildlife too.
Even our weather could be improving and for all that we complain about the weather in Shetland we do not have to cope with the flooding that areas in other parts of the country have had to contend with.
Mr Bunyan said maybe we should think in terms of the richness of Shetland’s culture too: the music, the traditions in textiles and now media improvements and arts recognition.
We have marinas, sports facilities, an award-winning local newspaper, there is freedom for the children who can play outside safely.
Mr Bunyan concluded his talk by saying that as for financial and spending problems there were probably many local authorities who would love to have the perceived spending problems that Shetland might think it has.
After the usual break for tea and refreshments, a lively debate ensued with questions being asked from the floor.
Many people felt that there was an overall feeling that Shetland did appear to be very well off on the surface and because of this, pockets of poverty and deprivation were overlooked.
Gordon Dargie raised the point that maybe we should be asking: “Whose Shetland is well off, maybe the term ‘we’ does not necessarily include everybody.”
Mr Eunson conceded that there was indeed a problem of social exclusion in Shetland and that some felt that you needed to be sporty, healthy and maybe wealthy yourself to get on in Shetland.
Jonathan Wills said nobody was denying that Shetland was not well off but he asked the audience to ponder for how long did we think we could keep up the illusion? The value of Shetland Charitable Trust is now worth eight per cent less than it was in March and 15 per cent less than it was this time last year.
Other audience members pointed out that the council was living beyond it means – what would happen when it reached its credit limit?
The closing vote was drawn with 14 votes for the motion, 14 votes against the motion and two still choosing to abstain. In the light of this there was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Bobby Hunter as chairman could use his casting vote. However, at the end of a very entertaining evening the result was recorded as a draw.