The race to become Shetland’s MSP for the next four years heated up this week, with independent candidate Billy Fox appearing increasingly confident he can give incumbent and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott a real run for his money.
As the contest nears its conclusion the war of words between the two has intensified in recent days, with anti-Viking Energy candidate Mr Fox saying during last Friday’s election hustings that he was “not convinced Tavish has been upfront and honest” about his views on the deeply divisive proposed windfarm.
Four years ago the Liberal Democrat politician was re-elected with a remarkable two-thirds of the vote on a 59 per cent turnout. Mr Fox said he had spoken to many people who were coming out to vote having not done so for many years “because they’re disillusioned with the one-horse race that Shetland politics is”.
Mr Scott claimed his opponent had run a “negative campaign” whose main tactic was to oppose anything he favoured. He criticised “the kind of language Billy has been using in this campaign” and dismissed Mr Fox as a “single-issue candidate”. Mr Scott again asked people to judge him on his track record as isles MSP since 1999, pointing to achievements including fighting off SNP plans to reduce Shetland’s lifeline ferry service during the last parliament.
“People don’t vote on the basis of four weeks, but on four years of activity,” he told this newspaper. “That’s what separates me from the others. That explains why single-issue candidates won’t win, particularly single issue candidates who have arrived at the last possible moment.”
The election takes place next Thursday, when voters will also be asked to choose candidates for the Highlands and Islands list region and to vote for or against adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) system for Westminster elections.
Bookmakers Victor Chandler shortened the odds on Mr Fox to just 6/4 this afternoon, after he had been rated a 150/1 outsider last weekend, though Mr Scott remains strong favourite at 1/6 on.
Among several endorsements in this week’s Shetland Times, Mr Fox has won the backing of ex-SIC convener Tom Stove. Such has been the level of community support he has received since announcing his candidacy, the former BP worker is no longer ruling out the possibility of overturning Mr Scott’s huge majority.
“When I deliberated about standing, I felt the best I could probably do was make a reasonably significant inroad into Tavish’s majority,” Mr Fox said. “With the feedback I’ve been getting from the broad spectrum of the Shetland public, I think it could even be a very close thing. It’s difficult for me to know because I’m obviously going to get all the positive messages coming back to me … I don’t actually think it’s impossible that I might even win.”
Following a widely welcomed rethink from the BBC in Glasgow over the exclusion of Mr Fox, all five candidates took part in the traditional radio hustings at Shetland Museum on Friday evening.
Conservative hopeful Sandy Cross spoke of the need to provide incentives for the private sector to create jobs at a time of SIC cutbacks. He blamed the need for massive cuts in public spending on the previous Labour government at Westminster, saying it was “disingenuous” of the party to “disclaim responsibility for this”.
Labour candidate Jamie Kerr dismissed that, saying the recession was a global one and vowing to “protect Shetland from the cuts” being made by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London. He said Shetland wouldn’t have had to battle to save its coastguard station “if it wasn’t for [Mr Scott’s] Tory buddies in London”.
Fearful of the Lib Dems suffering a backlash against the Westminster coalition’s policies, Mr Scott has increasingly tried to distance himself from his party’s deeply unpopular UK alliance. “I remember Thatcherism too, when Scotland was the guinea pig for the poll tax. I didn’t support that then and I wouldn’t support that now,” he said.
Policies such as taking the lowest-paid out of taxation were “much more progressive than helping the wealthiest” in society and showed the importance of the Lib Dems in averting the danger of “a Tory government that burned Scotland at the stake”, Mr Scott suggested nationally this week.
The candidates were quizzed over their stance on Viking Energy, with Mr Scott describing it as a “very divisive, unpleasant and controversial issue”. He reminded listeners that the decision lies in the hands of Scotland’s next energy minister, and “whoever is MSP will not have a vote on this”. He was joined by Mr Cross in calling for a local public inquiry to help heal divisions in the community.
Mr Fox re-iterated his “total opposition” to the windfarm. “It disturbs me that we think we can despoil our environment for revenue which is speculative, when we actually should be looking at enhancing our environment,” he said.
Both Ms Urquhart and Mr Kerr – the only candidate to outrightly endorse the project – criticised Mr Scott for refusing to take a stand one way or another. Mr Kerr said the “money and jobs” the windfarm would bring to the local economy meant it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
“I think the role of a representative is to provide leadership. Yes, it will lose me votes but that’s a position I’ve taken,” Mr Kerr said, adding he was surprised that Mr Scott would not take a view on “the most divisive topic” in a generation, because politics is about “hard decisions and tough calls”.
Mr Scott has been widely criticised for proclaiming neutrality when many believe he privately supports the windfarm. He rejected Mr Kerr’s comments, saying he had made his position on the windfarm quite clear. “If my view’s not good enough, there are plenty other candidates for people to choose from,” he said.
All the candidates agreed that more action is needed to address the high price of fuel, with a litre of petrol now costing motorists around £1.50.
Mr Kerr’s party is calling for a reversal of the Westminster coalition’s increase in VAT, which added around three pence to the price of a litre. High prices are “hurting me and no doubt everybody else”, he said.
The government’s plan to reduce the price of petrol and diesel by 5p in remote island communities was highlighted by Mr Scott. He said it was the first step towards removing the “dreadful difference” between Shetland and the Scottish mainland.
For Ms Urquhart, such changes were only “tinkering around the edges” and the best route to significantly cheaper pump prices would be independence. She said: “Scotland has to be in control of her natural resources, including oil and tax, in order to be able to see a fair price at the pump in Scotland, and particularly rural areas.”
Mr Fox repeated his disapproval of the coalition’s windfall tax on oil companies, which “put in jeopardy significant investment in the North Sea over the next five years”, describing it as a “very silly thing to do”.
Despite the importance of a stable tax regime for companies, Mr Cross said the tax “has got to be taken in the context of a £120 million-a-day interest bill run up by our old chums” in the previous Labour government.
An argument over the value of independent candidates saw those from the main parties dismissing Mr Fox’s chances of getting things done for Shetland should he be elected. Mr Kerr said some “colourful candidates” had been elected but “they don’t achieve anything”.
Mr Fox dismissed such concerns, saying he would have “the freedom to take each issue on its own merits” without having to worry about towing a party line and could attract concessions from a minority government in return for his support.
He pointed to the valuable contribution to Scottish politics from well-known independent Margo MacDonald, adding that Shetland being viewed as a Lib Dem “safe seat” was much more damaging for democracy because it meant the main parties did not take the constituency seriously.
While Ms MacDonald was an “incredible lady”, Mr Scott said that while she “agitates furiously and with some considerable skill … she doesn’t necessarily get anything done at all”. Mr Cross said the lack of “infrastructure and support” provided by a wider political grouping would hamper Mr Fox’s ability to achieve things in parliament.
For full election coverage, including interviews with Billy Fox, Tavish Scott and Sandy Cross, see this week’s print edition of The Shetland Times.