One of the islands’ most prominent historians says the “fantastical” way the debate on its constitutional future is often presented nationally makes Shetlanders “look like fools”.
Brian Smith told this newspaper there were too many “flights of fancy” about the islands either becoming a crown dependency or returning to rule from Scandinavia.
He detects a deep-seated “fear of change” and an instinctive desire to cling to the status quo.
“There’s no doubt that some of this rings a bell with the Shetland public, this idea that in a time of major change possibly being imminent, Shetlanders can somehow crawl away from the change by wedding themselves more firmly to the crown,” he said.
He said there were historical precedents for this mindset dating as far back as the 16th century, and he feels the argument has taken on an increasingly “bizarre form”.
Udal law campaigner Stuart Hill in 2008 attempted to declare a crown dependency on Forvik, a 2.5 acre island south of Papa Stour. Though that found scant local support, Mr Smith said Mr Hill’s crusade was closely comparable to Tavish Scott’s “cursory” recent call for home rule.
“It’s Stuart Hill that came up with it, and the fact that it’s been swallowed now by the MSP is quite extraordinary,” Mr Smith said. “The basic idea appears to be that if there’s going to be big change, we don’t want anything to do with it. Therefore, we go as supplicants to the crown to save us.”
Mr Smith is a trade unionist and former Labour party member, who says he is minded to vote ‘yes’ in next September’s referendum on Scottish independence.
Within that context, he is baffled by some national portrayals of a Shetland populace continually harking back to ancient historical ties with Scandinavia.
“I think it makes Shetlanders look like fools, because there’s no reality to this,” he said. “The number of people in Shetland who feel this affinity is minute. When Tavish says all this stuff about Norway, it’s bunkum.
“Obviously the attitude to rural communities in Norway is in some ways admirable, but the question is how you change things to reflect that. Saying ‘let’s go back to Norway’ is meaningless, because there’s absolutely no mechanism whereby that could possibly happen.”
He said there were “various levels of unreality” in the debate on Shetland’s constitutional future. Some letter-writers have cited academics claiming the islands could negotiate control over resources up to a 200-mile limit from its shores.
“What do Shetlanders have to negotiate with in a discussion like that?” he asked. “Tavish says ‘it’s Shetland’s oil’ – how did Shetland acquire that oil? Shetland’s not a nation state. Alex Salmond is running a political campaign to try and alter the situation. Nobody in Shetland is doing that, they’re just fantasising about it.”
Mr Smith said he favoured the more sensible discussion about extra powers being held by the SIC.
“I think that the council should negotiate with the Scottish government about possibilities,” he said. “That’s likely to bear fruit much more than any amount of jabbering about the crown dependencies.
“It’s when the flights of fancy begin to appear that my heart sinks, because I’m afraid the result of these flights of fancy is nil. Crown dependencies are for rich businesspeople; they certainly won’t benefit people on benefits.”
At a time of massive change in 1577, Mr Smith said Shetlanders had petitioned the crown arguing for a Royal Commission every few years to look after the isles’ interests. That never happened, but it was “very significant that even at that distant date they were looking for that”.
Fast forward 400 years and he believes the same frame of mind allowed the Shetland Movement to briefly flourish during the Thatcher years.
With David Cameron’s coalition “going ten times further than Thatcher”, Mr Smith said he believed rule from Edinburgh is more likely to result in political progress. “It may be a counsel of despair, but I’m inclined to think change would be more likely to emerge under a Scottish Government.”