The isles and the referendum: some observations

It is notable – but hardly surprising – that Tavish Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur have chosen to respond with their seven-and-a-bit page document to the UK government’s consultation on the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future, but not the Scottish government’s own Your Scotland Your Referendum exercise.

In his comments on BBC Scotland’s Politics Show yesterday Mr Scott appeared to accept Alex Salmond’s proposed timetable for a referendum in the autumn of 2014.

Whether that was a slip or not – the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government is pushing for a much earlier poll – it is the only common ground the staunch Unionist politician shares with the First Minister on Scotland’s constitutional future.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ disastrous showing in the Holyrood election last year, and Mr Scott’s decision to stand down as leader, have placed him in a marginal position in Scottish politics.

That has given him time to start thinking about how Shetland ought to position itself prior to rather than after the referendum. It also allows him to make mischief as only opposition politicians can do.

Observers will note the familiar, and absolutely justified, theme of centralisation – the SNP has continued a trend that began in the 1960s of continually chipping away at local autonomy, although not just in the Northern Isles.

Regular readers of The Shetland Times will recognise much of what he and Mr McArthur say in their document, which is to be widely circulated in the Northern Isles in the hope of provoking debate locally.

“Since 2007 the SNP government’s approach to public administration has been the centralisation of services and decision-making across a wide range of areas,” the MSPs argue. “This is not consistent with local accountability nor does it fulfill the hopes of those who saw the creation of a Scottish Parliament as the means of devolving power within and not just to Scotland. 

“Fire and rescue, police, local colleges, court services, economic development, construction contracts and supporting professional services such as architects, surveyors and civil engineering are all being brought under national central belt control or a regionalised structure that is removing decision-making and accountability from the islands.  

“In education too, there are increasing signs of a ‘Minister knows best’ approach to all aspects of teaching and school management. Islanders are understandably concerned that decision-making in local schools is being micro-managed from Edinburgh. The scale of the budget and top-down initiatives – such as the introduction of a ‘Scottish Studies’ course into an already over-crowded school curriculum – only serve to fuel those fears.”

Changes to the Air Discount Scheme, introduced by Mr Scott when he was in government, the alleged political calculations behind shipping policy (favouring the Western Isles over the Northern Isles) and the nefarious impact of the European Union on fishing and agriculture receive an airing.

But the paper becomes really interesting when the discussion turns to oil and gas. If, they argue, the case for Scottish independence rests on a geographical share of the revenue from North Sea and West of Shetland oil and gas taxation, there is a “strong argument for applying this principle and logic to the Northern Isles”. Many people in the isles, they say, would take issue with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that Shetland is not a nation. They are effectively proposing that Shetland and Orkney have a right to the tax revenue from oil and gas production around their shores – a large proportion of the revenue that would accrue to an independent Scotland, however the map is sliced up.

The problem with this argument, as I see it, is that there is no equivalent of the SNP in Shetland, no cohesive and organised group which might be able to push people into positions of power on the council advocating that Shetland (and indeed Orkney) should go it alone as there was in the 1970s and 1980s. That may change, of course, but the key council election is in May and so far the only serious figure to suggest hame rule is outgoing convener Sandy Cluness.

Of course Mr Scott should be pushing for the best possible deal for Shetland, but he says  he does not believe that Scotland, never mind Shetland, will vote for independence, so this is surely political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position.

The parallel they draw with the 1970s, when Shetland secured the financially advantageous Zetland County Council Act (1974) and coralled the oil companies into one location at Sullom Voe, and now, doesn’t seem quite right: then, the government was hell-bent on getting the tax loot quickly and prepared to make concessions; now, the revenues are declining and we live in an age of austerity; then, Shetland was blessed with councillors with foresight, energy and determinaton; now, the council is still recovering from a disastrous decade and doing the basics well will be the key task for the new intake. 

Mr Scott and Mr McArthur are on firmer ground, or seabed, when they argue that an end to Crown Estate involvement in the Northern Isles and the devolution of the marine estate to local authorities and harbour boards.

“Such a change has the potential to enhance marine development, financially assist the aquaculture industry and ensure that creating facilities for new and developing industries such as marine renewables and decommissioning would not face an additional tax regime.”

The MSPs conclude with three options which the Northern Isles could seek:

  1. To retain their current constitutional position within the UK and as part of Scotland but negotiate additional responsibility over key public sector areas.
  2. Enhanced powers or independence from Scotland if Scotland were to vote for independence but the Northern isles voted no. The SNP’s policy at successive elections conceded the Northern Isles’ right to their own self-determination.
  3. Enhanced constitutional and tax status within the UK. The Faroes provide one model with links to Denmark. Closer to home the Isle of Man and Channel Islands offer various models of island communities that constitute themselves in different ways from the rest of the UK.

And they conclude: “Shetland and Orkney may never have a stronger opportunity to negotiate a future for the islands which can benefit the economy, culture and identity in the wider world for the advantage of future generations of Islanders. There are obvious risks for the Northern Isles from ignoring this opportunity, not least as it will limit our ability to argue against the drift of public policy delivery to the central belt and the consequential loss of local accountability.

“Orkney and Shetland should establish their objectives as island communities in this period of constitutional upheaval and use their inherent advantages as leverage with both the UK and Scottish governments.”

Let’s hope Mr Scott’s and Mr McArthur’s stated aim of getting the debate going here in the isles works; it’s too important to be left to the fantasists in some quarters of the national media.



Add Your Comment
  • J F Siebert

    • March 19th, 2012 9:09

    Blue Sky Thoughts

    The beginnings of a new Falklands Islands “problem” are already visible: combining Shetland, Orkney and the Falklands in a new constitutional relationship with the present UK would in many ways be a natural, mutually advantageous, and not inconceivable solution to this and other issues.

  • Graham Henderson

    • March 19th, 2012 12:03

    Like most long-term exiles I would like to return to my islands and not find them void of inhabitants. Centuries of neglect and misrule whether they be the result of governments in Edinburgh, London or Brussels can only be overturned by the same kind of autonomy enjoyed by the Faroese, who are not subject to EU madness. The example set by the Icelanders when they established their exclusive fishing zone may have upset a lot of fishermen, but without fishing there is no Shetland, and it is time that we faced the fact that without this industry life in Shetland will be untenable in the not-so-long-term; the EU will destroy us. When the SNP are advocating total independance for Scotland, and are fervant anti-Europeans, how in all conscience can they resist calls for Shetland’s autonomy? 22,000 inhabitants don’t amount to a heap of beans politically but strategically we do. When is the “Northern Islands Party” to appear? Where are the leaders? Are we allowed to declare ourselves unilaterally an independent autonomous region? Perhaps the likes of Sandy Cluness can give us an answer.
    Graham Henderson, Brussels (This year’s and every year’s International Capital of Insanity).

  • Charles Addison

    • March 19th, 2012 13:22

    ” When the SNP are advocating total independance for Scotland, and are fervant anti-Europeans, how in all conscience can they resist calls for Shetland’s autonomy?” Sorry, Mr Henderson, but this must be a different SNP that you are referring to. The SNP are neither anti-European nor have they ever denied the Northern Isles their right to self determination (whether as part of Scotland or the UK). However, I find it strange that Tavish supports a different tax settlement for the Northern Isles within the succesor UK but not a different tax settlement for Scotland (including the Northern Isles) within the current UK. So much for principle! Trust him if you want: at least your airfields will be secure from bombing.

  • Craig Mahon

    • March 20th, 2012 8:04

    It’s disappointing to both read and hear Tavish Scott’s words.
    I would suggest that Tavish is motivated purely by career aspirations, or, to be more accurate, a lack of career prospects.
    Tavish is now isolated and on the sidelines. In a political sense and within the context of current constitutional debate, Tavish is going nowhere and he knows it.
    He comes across as a bitter man.
    I’m quite sure that the people of Shetland share a view once framed by the policies of the Lib Dems, but I would argue that they are being badly represented by a careerist politician who wants nothing more than a glittering career with all the rewards that London can provide.
    Tavish probably has one eye on a seat in the House of Lords and he will go to any lengths to promote his candidacy.
    The SNP want to build a better society, they want to model it on current Scandinavian experience and they reject the current policies promoted by the Lib Dems and Conservatives in London.
    Tavish, as a Lib Dem, supports the current policies of the current London government. Do the Shetland Isles really want this?

    • Victor Young

      • September 18th, 2014 15:15

      Of course you realise the the Scandinavian dream comes with a price tag. In all of the constituent countries which make up Scandinavia, personal tax is far higher and the cost of living is far higher. Furthermore, they get to keep less of their take home pay. One would have thought that the Scandanavian countries could learn a lot from the UK, not vice versa

  • Angus Robertson

    • March 20th, 2012 10:51

    Tavish Scott is using the people of Shetland as a political football to serve his staunch unionism.
    There are a number of factors that should be thought about, putting aside what Mr. Scott advocates.
    Shetland arrived to UK, as a part of Scotland.
    Legally it will have to leave with Scotland, then it could be debated to have a referendum on Scotland.
    Mr Scott is advocating racial reasons for Shetland to leave Scotland, historically Shetland belonged to, and was colonised by Norway, though ethnically the Shetland peoples roots are primarily traced back to the Picts, more so than the Vikings, this gives the Shetland people much in common with the people in the North and East coast of Scotland.

    Oil is the main issue, and at the end of the day, what Tavish Scott says is irrelevant, the people of Shetland will decide and international arbitration will decide the territorial waters of Scotland, England and if so wished, Shetland.

  • Derick Tulloch

    • March 20th, 2012 20:26

    Ach it’s just the Liberals at mischief making to disguise the fact they have sold out every principle they ever had. Being generous there in assuming they had any in the first place. I hope this article makes the print edition of the Times

  • Andrew Morton

    • March 20th, 2012 21:07

    Before indulging in fantasies about “Shetland’s oil” I suggest you check this out:

    There is no oil in the waters to which an independent Shetland would be entitled under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    • Victor Young

      • September 18th, 2014 15:21

      This is to do with the international agreements in setting up enclaves, and the assumption that the Shetland islands would be an enclave of Scotland.

      Don’t believe that. You cannot just grab off somebodies assets on the basis of a political vote. The convention deals with existing models, for a nation to become independent i.e. a new model, then there would have to be division of assets. Shetland’s would undoubtedly retain much of the oil off of its coasts.

      There is another scenario, however, which would work. If Scotland were to vote for independence, but the Islands voted to stay with the UK. Then, it would be clear cut , that Scotland was the enclave surrounded in UK waters !

  • Andrew Morton

    • March 20th, 2012 21:21

    To be more precise, “There is no oil in the waters to which Shetland (if it remained within RUK) would be entitled.

  • ian tinkler

    • March 20th, 2012 22:33

    To be more precise, “There is no oil in the waters to which Shetland (if it remained within RUK) would be entitled. What is the RUK?

  • Andrew Morton

    • March 21st, 2012 8:10

    Residual UK.

  • ian tinkler

    • March 21st, 2012 10:20

    Whoops Tom. Shetland would lie on the Norwegion side of the continental shelf. If Shetland were independant of Scotland would not under your reasoning Norway have the oil? Look at.

  • Robert Peffers

    • June 13th, 2013 15:59

    Let us be more precise with the definitions of, “The rUK”, shall we? The United Kingdom began life as a bipartite, “Treaty of Union”, between two equally sovereign KINGDOMS, (Why else did you think the called it, “The United Kingdom)? Thus, when either bipartite partner decides to leave, “The United Kingdom”, that bipartite union ends. The, “Status Quo Ante”, reverts to two independent, equally sovereign, kingdoms. Each with their own legally elected independent parliament with the only things they have in common is both are equally British and the monarch of each kingdom is the same royal person. Ergo, the United Kingdom AND its unified Parliament at Westminster are ended. Westminster is the Union Parliament not the legally elected Parliament of the three country Kingdom of England. Thus there will be no such thing as an rUK or in fact any kind of united kingdom. Here’s the text of the, “Article of Union”, that proves the point beyond any doubt : –

    Article I. That the two kingdoms of Scotland and England shall upon the first day of May next ensuing the date hereof, and for ever after, be united into one kingdom by the name of GREAT BRITAIN; And that the Ensigns Armorial of the said united kingdom be such as Her Majesty shall appoint,, and the crosses of St Andrew and St George be conjoined, in such manner as Her Majesty shall think fit, and used in all flags, banners, standards and ensigns, both at sea and land.

    There is NO mention of countries and, in 1706/7 the Kingdom of England had annexed both Wales & Ireland.


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