Europe, fish and the referendum (Jonathan Wills)

The last time we had a referendum on Europe, almost 40 years ago, Shetland and the Western Isles were the only British counties to vote against The UK’s continued membership of the Common Market, as we called it back then. Of the 61 per cent who bothered to vote here, 44 per cent were in favour and 56 per cent against. The reason for Shetland’s  standing out against the national average (which was 67 per cent in favour of staying in Europe) was simple: fishing.

In the General Election of October 1974 I had stood as Labour candidate on a platform of renegotiating the terms of entry to Europe, particularly to delay the proposed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which created a European single lake where national and local fishing rights were severely curtailed and, in effect, pooled.

It is debatable whether Harold Wilson’s new terms, on which we voted in the 1975 referendum, were a real improvement. Certainly he postponed the introduction of the CFP, but later it happened anyway and in general was probably a bad thing for Shetland’s fisheries.

We now have a reformed CFP which, despite admirable goals such as protecting fish stocks and reducing waste, nonetheless looks like destroying the remnants of the Shetland whitefish fleet with a total ban on discards. If only the haddock, whiting, cod and piltocks would learn to swim in neat, segregated Euroshoals there would be less of a problem, but the foolish fish have no intention of conforming to Brussels’ rules and they keep coming up in the same net, all mixed together. So when you’ve caught your quota of piltocks you must stop fishing, even if you’ve caught nothing like your full quota of haddock. Result: bankruptcy.

There are ways around this problem, such as the Shetland Fishermen’s Association’s proposals for mixed-species quotas and other technical fixes, but the European Commission, having ignored warnings from its own Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), is determined to press ahead and implement the ruinous “no discards” policy in 15 months’ time. Attempts by the fishermen and the council to delay and amend this ruinous policy have failed so far because, ultimately, we are only in Brussels under the coat tails of an uncaring and ignorant British Tory administration.

So, from the fleet’s point of view, Scotland’s leaving the UK might be seen as a good thing because, as Alistair Carmichael and Tavish Scott tell it, Scotland would then automatically be out of the European Union and would have to re-apply. This would give us a strong negotiating position on control of fish stocks in Scottish waters, you might think. But Scotland would not, of course, be thrown out of the EU. That was just another scare story. It is overwhelmingly inScotland’s (and Europe’s) interest to stay inside our biggest export market. Although the fishing industry is politically important north of the border, it’s not as important as other export industries such as
oil, whisky or tourism.

A self-governing Scotland would have a vote when European fisheries policy was debated and decided, rather than having to rely upon Westminster proxies for whom  the fishing industry is not of any particular interest (because less fish is now landed in  the whole of England and Wales than in Shetland). So I think Nicola Sturgeon is absolutely right. We do need to stay in Europe. Only a Scottish vote in Brussels can safeguard our fishing fleet and the communities that depend upon it.

I understand my friend Magnie Stewart’s point of view and I share his  exasperation. Europe certainly needs to be reformed. I do not question Magnie’s  sincerity, but to vote No in this referendum seems to me to be self-defeating for the  industry that is still at the heart of the Shetland economy. That is one of several  reasons why I will vote Yes.

Jonathan Wills
Independent, Lerwick South
Town Hall,


Add Your Comment
  • John Tulloch

    • September 5th, 2014 16:29

    Interesting article. Forty years ago Shetlanders were obviously astute people.

    I may be missing something, however, you seem to build a splendid case for Shetland not to remain in the EU and then reach the apparently perverse conclusion that it’s in Shetland’s interest to remain in but with a Scottish vote in Brussels? While I share your view on Scotland’s chances of keeping its membership, it isn’t a “done deal.”

    Most, if not all, of the EU countries are members of NATO and it isn’t a big stretch to imagine a spanner being thrown in the works over the Faslane nuclear base being expelled from Scotland. There will be certainly be enormous pressure for it to stay where it is.

    I’ll grant you the fishing is more important to Scotland than it is to the UK, however, it’s more important, by far, to Shetland than it is to Scotland. And as far as the fishing, at least, is concerned, Shetland it’s in Shetland’s interest to be out of the EU, following Ali Inkster’s admonition, “Better aff clear o’ da lot o dem!”

    It follows that, if Scotland becomes independent, Shetland would be better off sticking with the rUK which, under post-independence right wing leadership will be more likely to leave the EU. That would benefit Shetland’s fishing industry while retaining the security of association with a larger power.

    Being that bit more remote i.e. with an independent Scotland between London and Lerwick, would surely increase the chances of Shetland gaining increased autonomy, not least, because of the cost of converting the isles to rUK law, should Shetland choose to join it instead of our hypothetical independent Scotland?

    Surely, that will be made more difficult if Shetland votes “Yes” on September, 18th?

  • roy chamberlain

    • September 5th, 2014 22:51

    im surprised at how confident the yes camp are with reference to membership of the eu -will spain say yes or the french say yes – when doing so will give hope to their own separatists – i would think probably not -and that leaves scotland isolated


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