HOME rule for Orkney and Shetland! The call yesterday by Tavish Scott, Shetland MSP and former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, for devolution of power to the Northern Isles may have had a whiff of Whisky Galore! about it, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this new development in Scotland’s independence debate as a political jape.
This could be a very real wrinkle in Alex Salmond’s plans for Scotland’s future. The problem for the SNP is that the language and logic of the Northern Isles home rulers is an exact mirror image of mainstream SNP policy for Scotland. Orkney and Shetland want autonomy from a legislature hundreds of miles away that seems of little relevance to them. And they want to benefit more fully from the oil wealth in their waters, instead of seeing the benefits enjoyed elsewhere.
This is a debate with a respectable pedigree. The Shetland Movement, in particular, has a long history of political activism and electoral participation, and indeed played a role in the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In many ways, Kirkwall and Lerwick feel greater affinity to Scandinavia than they do to the Scottish central belt. Culturally distinctive, confident in their identity, and with two-thirds of Scotland’s remaining oil and gas in their waters, they are entitled to declare, in the current constitutional discussion about independence, “what’s in it for us?”. The comparison being made is with the Isle of Man, which enjoys a remarkable degree of independence within the United Kingdom, with its autonomy financed not by oil but by financial services.
The SNP vision for Scotland makes the simple – and, until this weekend, reasonable – assumption that the political integrity of Scotland as a nation can be taken as a given. But what if it cannot? How can the Nationalists credibly say “no” to self-determination for the Northern Isles while at the same time urging a “yes” to self-determination for Scotland? Tricky, to say the least. Of course, there will be those who will insist the Northern Isles’ desire for more of the fruits of their undersea riches can be easily accommodated. After all, how much oil wealth could two relatively small island populations want? But that is to ignore the likelihood of Shetland and Orkney stealing yet another item of the SNP’s clothes. Salmond has long spoken enviously of Norway’s oil fund, which allows oil wealth to be squirrelled away for the day when North Sea oil dries up. Why shouldn’t Orkney and Shetland embark on a similar course of action, demanding their own long-term oil fund, in addition to the healthy revenues they currently enjoy? Any counter-argument that the Northern Isles shouldn’t be greedy would sound suspiciously like Unionism.
The problem for Salmond is not necessarily that these sums of money become prohibitively large to the extent that they dent SNP plans for independence. No, the problem is more one of politics and perception. The Northern Isles risk becoming yet another entity – after the European Union, Nato and Whitehall – with which the Scottish Government has to negotiate before the exact nature of independence becomes clear. It is another front on which Salmond has to fight, and another layer of uncertainty in an independence debate already replete with unanswered (and in some cases unanswerable) questions. Scott’s conference motion in Dundee yesterday was mischievous, of that there is no doubt. But it poses Salmond some very real dilemmas.
A useful hiatus
STEPHEN House’s comments on domestic violence and football, which we report in our news pages today, are sobering in the extreme. The new chief constable of Scotland’s single police force – who, it should be said, becomes a more impressive public servant with every public utterance – says domestic violence has dipped considerably in Scotland now that there are no Old Firm clashes, due to Celtic and Rangers playing in different leagues. He talks of his officers savouring the “holiday” of relative quiet, before the two adversaries are again facing each other a number of times every season.
House’s comments are important because they highlight an opportunity. Scotland can use this hiatus to address some of the root causes of what now seems to be an undeniable phenomenon of Old Firm-linked domestic violence. Some of the challenges are all too familiar. Alcohol is obviously one. So too is Scotland’s continuing struggle with sectarianism, which exists at a level our political leaders would prefer not to acknowledge. House’s new figures seem to suggest there is something about an Old Firm clash that brings out some men’s senseless aggression. But, more fundamentally, we need to address a crisis of Scottish masculinity, as real and as challenging as sectarianism. The message is simple: real men do not hit women.