The fast approaching vote on European membership may be a novelty for many, but some voters have seen it all before. In 1975 the UK as a whole voted to remain in, what was, the EEC. But Shetland went against the grain. Ryan Taylor finds out more from those who voted first time round.
“Decisive ‘No’ to Europe from fishermen.”
So ran The Shetland Times front page headline on 13th June 1975 – a week after the country had voted on Europe.
As a whole, the UK had backed continued EU membership which, after all, had only begun two years prior to the referendum.
But Shetland stood alone with the Western Isles by voting to leave. It may seem odd now, but such was the importance placed on the opinions of fishermen that their views were held above all others by this very paper.
But what do those who cast their votes, fishermen or otherwise, think now?
Forty-one years ago, Whalsay fisherman, Josie Simpson, voted against continued membership.
Now, he feels governments at Westminster and Holyrood are as guilty as Brussels for damaging the industry. He believes coming out of the EU could be damaging for the fishing sector.
“I voted no. I voted definitely no. I felt then that we were giving away too much. We were losing a lot of control of our fishing rights,” he said.
“I’m of the opinion now … I think a lot of the problems that the fishing industry has to face can be down to our own government.
“I know that there is a lot wrong with the EU, but I do think our governments have not done the best
“I think there are an awful lot of rules and regulations now in Brussels that a number of other countries work around to make it suit themselves.
“But our governments apply everything and add on a plus to it.”
He said the creation of the Scottish parliament had been a “step backwards” as far as the fishing industry was concerned.
“I feel that we were stronger in Europe when we were having to deal with Defra and Westminster as what we are now.”
And this time round?
“I’ve not just 100 per cent made up my mind yet. But I would think I would vote to stay in.”
He feared leaving the EU would mean a renegotiation of the UK’s total allowable catch, or TAC, in the North Sea.
“I think if we come out of the EU that our share will have to be renegotiated. I would be worried that we would come out of it with less.”
He also voiced concern about the freedom of movement within the European market place.
“I think there is an awful lot of renegotiation that will have to go on, and that worries me too.”
SIC councillor Vaila Wishart can remember voting to remain. She has her doubts about continued membership, but – while her mind has not fully been made up – believes leaving what is now the EU could cause a major headache.
“It’s fraught with difficulties because we have human rights legislation, which I think has been very important.
“I voted at that time, in the seventies, to join the European Economic Community, that we would have trade deals.
“It’s so different now from what we voted yes for. It’s a completely different beast.”
But does she believe voting yes this time round would be the better option?
“I still think we’re better in than out, because imagine having to renegotiate all those treaties.
“I can understand why fishermen would want to go out because they had such a torrid time under Europe.” VAILA WISHART
“I can understand why fishermen would want to go out because they had such a torrid time under Europe. But I think a lot of that was to do with our own government rather than Europe, necessarily.
“I haven’t totally made my mind up, but I am still inclined to vote to stay in.”
She described the possibility of having to “unpick” European treaties as a “nightmare”, which might end up costing more than leaving would save.
What angers Ms Wishart, who serves as the chairwoman on the SIC’s education and families committee, is the voting rights – or lack of them – of younger people
“I would be annoyed if I was aged 16 or 17 and had been allowed to vote in the Scottish elections and then won’t be allowed to vote in the referendum. I think that’s very unfair.”
Virkie resident George Jacobson is a big fan of the EU, meanwhile. And that is largely thanks to lessons from history. Remaining in the EU, he argues, is better than the potential threat of being at war with it.
“Irrespective of all the pounds, shillings and pence arguments put out by all the various sides, I think the most important thing is peace in Europe in our time.”
He cited a memorial in Tower Hill, London, which includes the name of his uncle, also George, who was lost at 100 miles northwest of Ireland when his ship was sunk in the Second World War.
“That’s a permanent reminder to me of the need for continued membership of the European Union, irrespective of the fiscal aspect. Peace in Europe is most important. I still think we are far better off to be in it than out of it.”
The question of Europe, and the UK’s relationship within it, was on the mind of Tory MEP, Ian Duncan, during his visit to the isles.
Mr Duncan described himself as a “supporter” of the EU, although he has become increasingly sceptical since his election.
“The closer you see it, the more troubles you see,” he said.
He described the agreement brokered by Prime Minister David Cameron over Europe as “a good deal”, and a step forward.
But he said he wanted to “humanise” the reform, adding he had been briefed by the PM to find ways of cutting the dreaded red tape.
As for 1975, The Shetland Times pointed to a slow turn-out, with less than 50 per cent of the electorate voting on the day.
That, the front page story said, could well be down to a lack of information, general indifference “and possibly simply because of our distance from Europe”.
All of which might pose a very valid question: Does anything ever change?