By JOHN ROBERTSON
Scotland’s decade of devolution has brought better government for Shetland, according to SIC convener Sandy Cluness, but conflict between the administrations in Edinburgh and Westminster hampers progress.
He was one of a group of island representatives who gave their views to the Calman Commission visiting Lerwick on Monday as part of its national mission to gauge how governing Scotland within the UK might be improved.
About two dozen invited delegates, mainly SIC councillors, took part in a two-hour session in the Shetland Museum to debate devolution’s impact on Shetland and consider whether more powers and control over tax-raising should be passed to Scotland by the UK government.
The Commission on Scottish Devolution, as it is officially called, was set up at the behest of the Scottish Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties at Holyrood, which oppose Scottish independence. They acted after the SNP government launched its national conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future in 2007 which it intends to lead to a referendum on independence.
The option of full independence from Westminster is not up for discussion by the Calman Commission, which seeks to “secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom” and the SNP is not represented on the body.
After Monday’s session Mr Cluness said delegates agreed Shetland did feel closer to government than in the days when the Scottish Office served as the point of contact with power, held wholly by the government in London. “The general feeling was that devolution has been better for Shetland because we have had more direct contact with central government and civil servants,” he said.
However there is an ongoing problem between the two governments when the views of a Scottish minister become subservient to those of a UK minister, such as with the well-publicised difficulties experienced by Scottish fisheries ministers having to defer to an English or Welsh-based UK fisheries minister during Britain’s negotiations with other EU countries.
Difficulties have arisen when Shetland is affected by any of the matters still reserved to the UK government and finds itself having to deal with government mandarins and ministers in distant London who have a different set of views and priorities to those of Shetland or Scotland.
The convener cited as examples the sudden closure of the RAF base at Saxa Vord during which the SIC failed to get a sympathetic hearing from Whitehall, and the call for a lower rate of fuel duty for remote areas of Scotland, which fell on deaf ears in London.
The convener’s personal answer to some of the difficulties of making devolution work better for Scotland is for England to have its own parliament.
Energy is another matter still reserved to Westminster and Mr Cluness said there had been difficulties dealing with the UK government and the electricity watchdog Ofgem to get Shetland joined to the National Grid by a seabed interconnector to export power from the proposed Viking windfarm and bring power to Shetland when required.
Mr Cluness said UK government policy meant it was more expensive to transmit power to and from places like Shetland, which are far away from the grid, which is not the case in other countries.
Developing the West of Shetland gas and oil province has highlighted competing priorities between London and Shetland, according to the convener. In particular Total has had to deal with a long delay in its gas field plans due to UK government opposition to building a £500 million gas hub at Sullom Voe.
The oil company favoured that option, which benefits Shetland, while the government wanted all gas from the province handled by an offshore hub which would have brought no jobs or income to the islands. “Despite whatever support you get from Scotland, civil servants [in London] seemed determined to have the offshore hub,” Mr Cluness said. “There is that tension between the Scottish government and the UK government which doesn’t help us.”
He admitted that Shetland has, to some extent, had a false experience of economic life in a devolved Scotland because it is able to call on its reserves of oil money to support and develop business and industry, which other local authorities, reliant on funds from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, are unable to do.
The Commission has consulted hundreds of organisations and individuals over the past year. In its interim report in December it picked out energy, broadcasting, animal health, firearms, misuse of drugs and marine planning as areas controlled at UK level which might perhaps be devolved.
The UK government still makes the decisions for Scotland on a range of issues including taxation, energy, social security, defence, foreign affairs, broadcasting and immigration. Scotland governs its own education, health, justice, transport, planning, fishing, agriculture and the environment.
In its formal written submission to the Commission in September the SIC asked that control over oil and gas in Scottish waters be transferred to Scotland along with the power to fund international shipping links. The council complained about being “at the end of the chain” when the European Commission asks the UK to investigate the state aid complaints made about the SIC in recent years. There was also criticism of the London-governed Crown Estate and its role in managing the seabed and foreshore in Shetland.
Commission chairman Sir Kenneth Calman, a doctor by profession, was once chairman of the World Health Organization and is now chancellor of Glasgow University. He said the museum session had been “very positive and very helpful”. “Generally I think the feeling is that devolution has been a success but there are some things that can be made better.”
His Commission is made up of 15 members, mainly eminent politicians, academics, lawyers and business people, including former Orkney and Shetland MP Jim Wallace, now Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who was deeply involved in establishing the Scottish Parliament. Others include the Tory peer Lord Lindsay and the Labour peers Colin Boyd, now Lord Boyd of Duncansby, and Murray Elder, now Lord Elder.
The Commission will publish its final report and recommendations in October.