As he comes to terms with no longer being a major player in national politics, MSP Tavish Scott said this week that he would be free to spend more time meeting Shetland businesses and constituents over the next five years. He also hinted at pursuing a more cordial working relationship with the SIC as it wrestles with unpopular spending cuts.
Mr Scott also accepted the alliance between the Liberal Democrats and the “toxic” Tories at Westminster was the chief factor behind his party’s “cataclysmically bad” performance in the Scottish elections, which prompted him to resign as Scottish leader.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Shetland Times following a 10-day period spent reflecting on the ground-breaking election outcome, Mr Scott vowed to “stand up and face” the majority SNP government. He will fight to prevent “the worst of the cuts” affecting Shetland, especially anything related to ferry and air links with the Scottish mainland.
Mr Scott has never had much patience for the nationalists and, though there are “lots of things I agree with them on”, he has already criticised the appointment of an SNP MSP as the parliament’s presiding officer. He plans to seize every opportunity to challenge any notion that First Minister Alex Salmond has a monopoly on political wisdom.
Despite widespread speculation to the contrary, a battle-wearied Mr Scott insisted he never intended to stand for the position of presiding officer. He said the “disastrous” election result, which saw his party’s representation slump from 16 to just five MSPs at Holyrood, left him no alternative but to stand down.
“I had no intention of standing for presiding officer because as soon as the SNP had a majority then they could and would control the election to any office bearer’s position in parliament. There was lots of ill-informed speculation, as happens in politics. It’s very nice to be mentioned in these senses, but it wasn’t ever going to happen.”
During the last parliament Mr Scott successfully fought against cuts to the ferry link with Aberdeen, but was unable to prevent the Air Discount Scheme (ADS) being removed from businesses and organisations. He pledged to “vigorously oppose” cuts to the service run by NorthLink (the contract is up for renewal next year) and lobby to overturn ADS changes.
“What they’re doing now is to penalise voluntary and charitable organisations, never mind every business in Shetland. That’s adding to the cost of working here, doing things here, being active participants on the Scottish mainland. All of those things are backward steps.
“It’s going to need people who are prepared to stand up and face Mr Salmond on his assertions that he is right about everything. He isn’t right about everything and I’m going to make sure that Shetland’s case is very forcibly put in parliamentary committees and debates, and that’s going to be my job.”
It is clear that the past few months have taken their toll on Mr Scott personally, though his demeanour was notably more tranquil this week than it has been for quite some time. Repeated questioning in the national media on the UK coalition infuriated him during the campaign, culminating in a particularly tetchy interview with the Sunday Herald in the run-up to polling day.
He described the campaign as “brutally hard” and “not exactly a bundle of laughs”. What exasperated him most was having to field questions on a coalition government whose decisions he was powerless to influence. Mr Scott was unable to place sufficient clear water between himself and deeply unpopular UK leader Nick Clegg in voters’ minds.
“I wasn’t part of the UK government yet I was being asked on television every night to answer for the conduct and behaviour and political decisions of other people. I’m quite glad that’s over, to be honest. I must say I feel more relaxed than I did a couple of weeks ago.
“The UK coalition was a death knell on the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ chances of being competitive in this election, and that death knell was well and truly rung the minute they signed up for that last year. I didn’t know it was going to be as cataclysmically bad as it was. Being connected to the Tories is, in Scotland, as toxic as ever.”
He remains unhappy with the national election coverage, singling out the BBC which was “not helpful at all to my party and took a very pro-SNP line”.
“The Scottish press all decided the Liberal Democrats were there to be kicked because they were part of the UK coalition and they spent seven weeks kicking us. I was the figurehead of that and therefore got the most of it. As I say, I’m glad it’s over.”
Given that his analysis of the reason for the Lib Dems’ dismal performance is widely shared, some believe Mr Scott was too hasty in resigning the leadership – not least because of the relative inexperience of his few Lib Dem colleagues at Holyrood. But he felt the “straight political reality” of losing more than two thirds the party’s MSPs left resignation unavoidable.
The leadership passed this week to former MP Willie Rennie, who was elected to the Scottish Parliament on the regional list vote a fortnight ago. It leaves Mr Scott free to devote more attention to representing his 22,000 or so constituents in what, along with Orkney, is the only surviving Lib Dem heartland in Scotland.
“Undoubtedly there won’t be the same requirement to be in parliament every day and that’s something I kind of look forward to after 12 pretty hectic years where my diary was always being dictated.
“My diary is now my own so I can take a very much more relaxed attitude to being at home and making sure I speak with people and organisations right across the islands.”
Some commentators are now prophesying the extinction of his party as a force in Scotland and he admitted Mr Rennie would “have to do some hard thinking”, chiefly about how it interacts with London.
Regardless of that, where does the radically altered political landscape leave the ambitious 45-year-old’s career prospects? “I don’t know,” he replied. “It’s a bit early to ask that. Politics goes in cycles and we’re in a different cycle at the moment. The only constant has been the honour of being Shetland’s MSP and that’s what I have for the next five years.”
His anger at some of the policies coming out of London has been undisguised and he admits being “mortally fed up” with many UK ministers. But Mr Scott backed close friend and colleague Alistair Carmichael, the Northern Isles MP who is also a government whip, to “sort out” those issues affecting Shetlanders.
“London has to . . . get this coastguard station issue off our backs, get the tugs sorted out, get the helicopters at Sumburgh sorted out, instead of leaving them hanging around our necks [and demonstrate] that this government is helpful to Scotland and helpful to Shetland.”
He remains furious that the coastguard station closure – which the UK government now appears to accept is unworkable – had been put forward, especially in the run-up to the election.
“Why the UK government decided to start an exercise on coastguard stations where the case for Shetland and Stornoway was unanswerable, why they decided given the paltry amount of money, if any, they’d save by that change . . . to open those issues up before a Scottish election was beyond the wit of my understanding.”
The local campaign saw independent candidate Billy Fox make substantial inroads into his hitherto handsome majority.
Mr Scott questioned the conduct of some of his opponents but did not wish to elaborate, other than to say: “I’ve been used, over the years, to the SNP’s tactics locally which are always quite poisonous letters and that sort of thing, but I was a bit surprised others went down that same line as well. Shetlanders do not respond well to that kind of campaigning and it happened again this time.”
Relations with SIC members and officials took a severe dunt when he and Mr Carmichael called for the Audit Scotland to investigate goings on at Lerwick Town Hall in 2009.
One councillor this week suggested Mr Scott’s attitude towards the council in the past two years had been akin to “the laird addressing his tenants”, while another said a more “constructive dialogue” with the MSP would benefit Shetland.
Mr Scott adopted a mainly placatory tone this week. He plans to meet new political leader Josie Simpson and senior officials to better grasp “exactly what the SIC is seeking to do both in terms of budget and in terms of policy”.
In particular, he wants to be satisfied that “the richest local authority in Scotland” is striking a balance between making spending cuts and using its £250 million oil reserves to minimise their impact.
He accepts cutting highly valued public services is an unenviable task, but reiterated his opposition to shutting small rural primary schools. He wants to see an overarching vision for isles education, not just a “blueprint for closures”.
He added: “I’ve had emails this week from parent councils asking me to help initiate call-in procedures in relation to Uyeasound and Burravoe, and concerns from the parent council at Olnafirth as well, as they see themselves as next in line.
“I’ll do very firmly my constituency job on their behalf but also I want to understand what is going on at the top of the SIC as to how they plan to take forward the challenging spending decisions that they have.”
Having been a councillor himself prior to becoming MSP 12 years ago, Mr Scott admits elected members shied away from taking tough decisions on spending cuts during his time at the town hall.
“It would be fair to say the council I was on, from 1994 to 1999, probably ducked any hard decision that was put in front of us as well.
“I don’t blame our current councillors at all for the difficulties they face. That’s why what I want to understand is where they’re heading with less than a year before the next council elections.”