Hogni Hoydal knows Shetland well. He is a Faroese politician who is one of the 33 members of the islands’ Parliament. He is leader of the Republican Party, which favours complete independence for the Faroe Islands, and has been a minister in the Faroese government, although he is at the moment in opposition. Hogdi is also one of the two Faroese members of the Danish Parliament, where he sits outside the Danish party system as a pro-independence Faroese – the other Faroese member being a unionist.
Harry Jansson has also spent time in Shetland. He is a member of the Parliament of Åland, the islands lying between Sweden and Finland and which have a very similar population to Shetland. Ålanders speak Swedish although the islands are part of Finland, and they have a high level of autonomy guaranteed by the Finnish constitution. Harry was elected as a member of Ålands Framtid (“Ålands Future”), but has since become a member, and is now leader of the Centre Party.
Both these island politicians find Shetland’s “lack of politics” to be surprising, depressing and interesting. Where is the debate about Shetland’s present and future? How does our elected council manage itself when it is made up of 22 “independent” individuals? How do Shetlanders know what they are voting for when they are faced only with candidates who describe themselves as “independent”?
The lesson to be drawn from the thoughts and deeds of Hogdi and Harry has got something to do with “party”. Without parties that are saying things relevant to the needs and aspirations of a community, the argument goes, that community will be deprived of vision and of a considered sorting out of its priorities.
A political party is essentially an organisation of people who share common political objectives. These objectives may derive from representing a particular group of people, or they may derive from sharing principles that they want to see applied in society.
It is for each of us to decide whether socialism – or any other “ism” that you care to think of – is a body of ideas that describes the kind of Shetland (or Scotland or Britain or even Europe) that we want to live in. The problem at the moment is that whatever kind of Shetland you want, there is no obvious way to set about getting it.
The political parties that compete for votes in Scottish and British general elections do not have anything very specific to say about Shetland, and are not part of the electoral process that selects SIC councillors. Rather, those parties descend on us every few years with sets of ideas, “promises” and proposals that have little to do with the issues that are exercising us in our islands. It is on the whole quite understandable that most Shetlanders are cynical about the very idea of party loyalty, and are glad that our local island politics are not driven by party considerations.
What we are in fact left with in our representation in both London and Edinburgh is the tattered remains of Jo Grimond’s classic formulation of Liberalism. He advocated that the freedom of the individual should be guaranteed through the strength of local communities and organisations. He saw both large scale capitalism and state socialism as dangers to the prosperity and liberty of the individual and the local community. Small is beautiful. It is a political philosophy that is naturally attractive to an island community, but one which is now a distant dream in the past of a Liberal Democrat party that has comprehensively abandoned Jo’s commitment to the dignity and freedom of the individual, community politics, and Scottish home rule in particular.
So what exactly is it that Hogdi Hoydal and Harry Jansson can teach us? Our present council reacts, often with spectacular inefficiency, to the problems and opportunities with which it is presented. It does not give the impression of setting out to achieve anything in particular. The lesson of Faroese and Åland politics is that we need and can have Shetland political organisations that can debate and express alternative visions of the kind of Shetland that we want to see. Our politicians can then enter debate within the council armed with purpose provided by the aims and objectives that got them elected. They can and will do more than react.
Many people in Shetland feel that at the moment something is missing in our public life. The substantial support secured in the recent Scottish Parliamentary election by Billy Fox shows at the very least that there is a widespread sense that the national menu of political parties does not meet our needs. Meanwhile, we are ambling towards SIC elections next year which will be unusually important. For the first time in 40 years, Shetland will not be able to sign a cheque to get out of problems as they emerge. We will need to be very clear about what is important to us. Yet at this point, there is no obvious emergence of “platforms” among candidates that will enable Shetland voters to opt for the future that between them they want.
One possibility is for embryonic Shetland political parties to emerge in time for the council elections. It is certainly open to Sustainable Shetland to think that way, as the group brings together people and ideas that cover a large part of the immediate concerns facing our community. It is perhaps more likely that people thinking about standing next May will talk to each other about what they want to do, and that as we approach the elections we will be given signals that, for example, if we vote for any of those four candidates we will get the highest possible priority on keeping educational standards and maintaining the present level of ferry services. “Those four candidates”, whoever they might be, are in effect the simplest beginning, in the Shetland context, of a political party.
Another possibility is for the existing national political parties to play a more active local role. An example which I would personally support – time to come off the fence – is for the local SNP to try to take on some of the purposes of the once-upon-a-time Orkney and Shetland Movement. Use the local membership and branch not just to deliver some leaflets for an outside candidate parachuted in every few years, but to debate what the issues actually are here in Shetland. The local SNP would then I suspect be pushing at an open door in persuading the SNP at national level to build Shetland’s local priorities into its government intentions.
In principle, any of the national political parties could follow a similar tactic. That does not mean that they should all put up party candidates in next May’s election. The mistake that seems to have been made in relatively recent years by Liberal and Labour candidates is that they stood on party labels without distinctive policies relevant to Shetland having been thought out first. That is unlikely to happen in a way that the public will accept before next May.
The healthy island democracies of Faroe and Åland have their own party political systems. Our rather ropey democracy does not. We would benefit from having a time of reflection on the best way to manage ourselves, and that includes thinking through how groupings that share common political platforms designed to address Shetland issues could bring more vision and sense of direction into our council chamber.
We need to overcome Shetland’s natural resistance to party politics in island government by demonstrating how policy platforms could help us to get out priorities right. Political groupings on the council would also help us to make management of services more accountable – but that is perhaps an argument for another day. There won’t be a revolution in our political structures before next May, but I do expect the urgency of the financial issues facing us to lead to the start of a process. We must know not just the personalities of our candidates, but what they intend to do, and why, and how they will achieve anything in co-operation with others.