In the late 1960s, the possibility of oil developments posed an immense threat to Shetland and its “way of life”. The council rose to the challenge and turned the threat into an opportunity. Decades have passed and a new threat has emerged with the current debate on the future of the United Kingdom. I suggest that this threat can be turned into an even greater opportunity.
Since the extent of the threat may not be obvious, I begin by mentioning two factors that indicate its seriousness. The first is the determination shown by the Scottish government to circumvent the powers given to Shetland by the UK government in order to redirect “oil revenues” from Shetland to Scotland. The second is the preferential financial treatment which the Scottish government has accorded to Orkney over Shetland.
However, the opportunity is as real as the threat. All these decades ago, when the prospect of oil in UK waters was beginning to give some credence to the SNP’s ambitions, Shetland answered their slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil” with the simple retort “It’s Shetland’s Oil”, going on to indicate that, in the event of any serious progress on Scottish independence, Shetland would negotiate with both parties (i.e. Scotland and England) as to which would be favoured by Shetland’s allegiance. The media responded to this with some verve but the SNP took the heat out of the situation brilliantly by stating that Shetland’s stance was reasonable and that, in the event, they would be happy to enter into such a negotiation. This was well documented in the national press and, given the SNP’s current protestation that they always honour their word, it would be difficult for them to turn their backs on their previous public promise. Moreover, it is unlikely that they would risk creating a situation in which Shetland was in direct negotiation with the UK government, alone. I am sure that the UK government would welcome such negotiations. Why? Because if the SNP lost Shetland it would lose most of the national oil revenues, without which their economic case would be seriously weakened.
If my assessment is correct, the council needs to take immediate action, to which there would be two parts both of which would have to be addressed almost simultaneously.
The first would be to establish that either or both governments would enter into negotiations. This is unlikely to be achieved by a simple request to both. The case for such negotiations would have to be established and the matters to be negotiated identified. In addition presentations would have to be made to opinion formers. The effort required for this should not be underestimated.
The second part would involve detailed work on the individual matters to be negotiated. This has to be thorough and would demand commitment far in excess of what is expected from either members or officials in normal circumstances. Expert advice of the highest quality would be required from lawyers, financiers and parliamentary agents. This could be costly, but Zetland County Council did this despite its meagre financial resources.
In regard to the matters to be negotiated, these would include matters that lie outside of local government responsibilities. An example of these was raised by councillor W A Smith these many years ago when he identified that it would be important to retain the link with Aberdeen for national health services; another being the legal system that would apply in Shetland should the on-going link be with London.
Needless to say, a pre-requisite of success would be close co-operation between the council and the community.
The opportunity will be lost if early action is not taken.
Ian R Clark