Last week as the Scotland bill made its way slowly through Parliament Lord Caithness tabled some controversial amendments. His intervention drew a rapid response from the SNP that quickly descended into personal attacks.
So what was it that had provoked such a reaction? It wasn’t the amendment on Rockall that drew their ire, instead it was the proposal that should Scotland vote “yes” but Shetland vote “no” to independence in 2014 then the Shetlanders should be given the option to stay in the UK. In short he was suggesting that the people of Shetland could choose a different path from Scotland.
This is sensitive terrain for nationalists and unionists alike. Nationalists are afraid of loosing their grip on the oil wealth that lies in Shetland’s waters. Any transfer of additional power north would threaten a source of income upon which the finances of an independent Scotland would be heavily reliant.
For these reasons nationalists will be determined to shut this subject down in the coming months, asserting that a lack of demand makes the question not worth being asked. Unionists are also wary of dipping their toes into this subject for a similar reason. Fear of a Shetland renaissance could well result in a Scottish “no” in 2014 but if the price to pay for defeating one nationalist cause was the generation of another then unionists may well think twice.
As the SNP reaction to Lord Caithness also showed, anyone from outside the islands raising the prospect of Shetland self-determination are at risk from being labelled as outsiders meddling in bad faith and not having the interests of the islanders at heart. This questioning of motivation or mandate cannot detract, however, from the fact that what is at issue is a fundamental right recognised in the UN charter: the right to self-determination.
Theoretically at least the range of constitutional arrangements open to Shetland, either alone or with Orkney, is wide. The default position if no action is taken is that Shetland would remain incorporated within Scotland as it becomes independent or stays in the UK.
The Lord Caithness amendment opened up the possibility of leaving Scotland and remaining in the UK. If Shetland were to find itself in the position of being allowed to choose between these two then the prospect of looser relationships would suddenly become available as both sides sought to improve their offering.
Greater autonomy and devolution are likely to be available but so too could crown dependency or overseas territory status. These would allow Shetland to share a currency and defence but be independent in all other matters. This could for example even allow for leaving the EU or sharing sovereignty with Norway without having to establish a central bank or navy. Ultimately of course the option of full independence would also exist.
Shetlanders are faced with an opportunity to shape their future that they have never had before and may never have again. The nationalist reaction to Lord Caithness’ intervention also hinted at the attitude Holyrood would take to a Shetland after independence. Shetland, it was declared, was “as much Scottish as Thurso or Tain”. Waiting for the dust to settle after 2014 could therefore be waiting for the opportunity to pass.
Without Shetlanders speaking up now while the terms of the 2014 referendum are being settled then Shetland will remain tied to Scotland for richer or for poorer. Neither the nationalists nor the unionists will, for their different reasons, take this question forward.
If you support the default option then you need take no action. If, however, you support a different constitutional status, whatever that may be, or simply the right to be asked to decide then now is the time to mobilise and make your voice heard.