Letter from Westminster

Early last week Jonathan Wills posed the question (in a fair and measured way) of how I could remain a minister in the coalition government while it was going to remove the emergency towing ves­sels (tugs) which have been stationed here and in the Western Isles since the Donaldson report into the grounding of the Braer.

It was not a question that I could answer publicly, even if I had had time to do so. I was devoting all my time and energy to getting colleagues in government to allow more time for a deal to be put together which would mean that the tugs could be retained.

It was actually Friday afternoon before that extra time was agreed, by which time I hope that Jonathan had his answer. Had I resigned from government when he might have wanted me to then I would not have been able to work with colleagues and to use whatever influence I have to promote a cause that is of enormous local importance.

Being in government at a time like this was never going to be easy and it is inevitable that when public spending cuts are having to be made that some will impact on Shetland. I cannot stop that. What I can do is that when there is a strong local case to be made for something (such as the tugs or retaining the local coast­guard station or the local pensions office) I can use my position in government to put that case and to ensure that it is listened to.

How often in the past have we put strong local arguments only to see them ignored by indifferent civil servants or ministers?

I am not saying here that it was only by my heroic intervention that the tugs have been given this extra time. What I am saying is that by being in government I have been able to work with others (in both parties) who share my views and to put the case for something that is important to the isles but which might not be readily understood in Whitehall or the coastguard HQ in Southampton.

The discussions within govern­ment have been going for some time now and I will not pretend that they have always been easy. I have enor­mous sympathy for my colleagues in the Department for Transport who have to find substantial savings in their budget while managing one of the most strategically important parts of government policy for stimulating growth.

By Thursday of last week I had reached the view that I needed to be in Westminster for some of these discussions.

What was produced by Friday afternoon when I was heading north again is not the end of the story. We have three months to put together a package taking money from different parts of government and the private sector which will allow us to remain protected by the tugs. There is a lot of talking and hard bargaining still to be done. I am determined, how­ever, that no stone will be left unturned in putting that package together.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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