In his remarks to The Shetland Times last week, Viking Energy chairman Bill Manson ruled out a referendum on the windfarm on the grounds that it was not the way things were done in this country. He is, of course, only partly right. Major constitutional developments, such as the creation of the new Scottish Parliament and Britain’s entry into the then EEC, have been the subject of plebiscites, the latter in 1975 after the country had already joined.
But perhaps more fundamentally, saying that a referendum is just not the way we do things echoes the cry of conservative forces throughout history: where is the room for the evolution of a democracy that clearly needs new DNA in such a stance?
Viking Energy has made much play of the fact that its 40 per cent share of the windfarm project gives the Shetland community a substantial shareholding, and at least one director has said that it will not be built against the wishes of that community. Both Viking Energy and Sustainable Shetland, the group that opposes the windfarm, claim to have majority opinion on their side; but the truth is that neither can honestly be sure. In the absence of a referendum, how are we to know where the balance of opinion in the community lies?
The level of cynicism in the isles about councillors and councillor-trustees representing the community interest, given the perceived conflicts of interest, is remarkable, as Tavish Scott and Alistair Carmichael found out at their surgeries on Friday.
In such circumstances, regardless of the merits or otherwise of the windfarm, it is vital that a proper test of public opinion be carried out. Which is why The Shetland Times is to conduct a major survey using the techniques deployed by formal polling organisations.
We will be seeking an answer to the simple question of whether Shetland folk are in favour or against the Viking windfarm. The charitable trust or the council would do well to follow suit with a referendum. This is too big an issue to be left to councillors and councillor-trustees.