Lesley Riddoch: Lesson in islands’ bid for autonomy

Scotland's offshore energy capital carries enough clout to demand a certain amount of local control. Picture: PA

Scotland's offshore energy capital carries enough clout to demand a certain amount of local control. Picture: PA

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SHOULD Orkney and Shetland be allowed to opt for a large degree of autonomy if Scots vote for independence?

It may not be the top question on anyone’s lips – but since the Northern Isles are Scotland’s offshore energy capital (in oil, gas and marine renewables) rumbles of discontent carry weight. But are these mere rumbles, what do they mean and are they being deliberately magnified?

The last question is the easiest. Of course they are. This week Alex Salmond is expected to name the date of the 2014 referendum, and next week John Swinney visits Lerwick for the Convention of Highlands and Islands so Shetlanders, like all the best negotiators, are limbering up.

Shetland Council recently held a seminar to discuss the continuing loss of powers to Holyrood, the council tax freeze and various remedies including a bid for self-governing crown dependency status as currently enjoyed by the Isle of Man.

This made no headlines until the Lib Dems Spring conference when former Scottish leader and Shetland MSP Tavish Scott proposed: “The Scottish Government should accept Shetland and Orkney have a separate right to self-determination, to secure the best future for themselves, whatever the constitutional future of Scotland.” The motion – co-sponsored by his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur MSP – was unanimously approved.

Now that effectively means nothing. Two MSPs currently constitute 40 per cent of the Lib Dem presence at Holyrood. But Lib Dems at Westminster could soon be UK negotiators in the event of a Yes vote and in 1921 the Aland Islands achieved just such autonomous status after Finnish independence. Still, the more straightforward view is that Tavish Scott is simply trying to create trouble for the Yes campaign. Undoubtedly he is. But politics aside, does he represent island opinion?

That’s hard to gauge. The SNP’s Angus Brendan MacNeil, the MP for the Hebrides, said last year the islands might remain part of the UK “if there was a big enough drive for self-determination among their residents”, though how that could be demonstrated is unclear.

But this is not a rerun of the 1979 devolution referendum when Orkney and Shetland negotiated a controversial opt-out clause to stay within the UK. These are island communities – or at least prominent politicians – arguing for more control whatever the constitutional settlement post-2014. And they are not alone.

Just as Scots have felt they are “talking to the hand” at Westminster, many Scottish councils feel they are doing much the same at Holyrood. Just as Scots aren’t prepared to wait for a whole UK solution to better governance, Orkney and Shetland aren’t minded to wait for a whole Scotland solution either. Just as Scots are leaders of the UK pack demanding democratic reform, so the Norse islanders are leaders amongst councils within Scotland. And just as the UK status quo isn’t an option for most Scots voters, the power-haemorrhaging Scottish status quo is apparently not an option for Orkney and Shetland voters, if we believe Messrs Scott and McArthur.

Under Tavish Scott’s plan the Northern Isles can “save themselves” by using energy muscle and negotiating talent to demand a better deal from the centre, be it Edinburgh or London. At the very least these island authorities want back the level of financial control they enjoyed in the 1970s. Ideally they want far more.

Now I’ll grant you, that’s not what Tavish has actually said. His comments contain a great deal more Alex Salmond-baiting and a lot less detail. Indeed he could usefully answer some questions.

If more autonomy for Orkney and Shetland is a good thing, isn’t it a good thing for every community? Doesn’t Scottish independence offer the best chance for change? And doesn’t a “fast track” argument for the Northern Isles put a big hole in Menzies Campbell’s alternative blueprint for the whole UK, which argues for a coherent move towards a federal, European style, highly de-centralised British state, not more one-offs and special fixes. Clearly no-one, including Tavish, thinks Ming’s Utopian federal vision will ever see the light of day.

So here we are. Yes campaigners question Tavish Scott’s motives and cite his long track record of opposition to independence. Constitutionalists wrangle cheerfully about enclaves and territorial limits and the more important question of what people really want is conveniently obscured.

Never mind Lib Dem politicians throwing googlies into the face of Yes campaigners. Do folk in Orkney and Shetland want more powerful local levers to run their lives? And if even a sizeable minority of 42,000 islanders do, shouldn’t Yes campaigners want the rest of Scotland to have some of what they’re on? Is no-one even interested in what creates such extraordinary capacity and confidence?

The latest “benchmarking data” for Scottish councils shows the highest satisfaction levels lie in the island regions of Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles – again. In other surveys the Norse islanders register almost Danish levels of happiness. Could that be related to the small community-controlled nature of their lives? Could that be because centuries of Norwegian ownership left a benevolent legacy of Udal (not feudal) law which resulted in widespread ownership of land and marine assets? Could the resulting long experience of personal, social and community empowerment explain the independent-mindedness of Orcadian and Shetland people?

Who knows. And, it appears, who cares? Central-belt Scots have relatively little contact with Orcadians and Shetlanders who tend to visit distant Aberdeen for hospital, social, family and entertainment needs, unlike Hebrideans who head to Glasgow.

Attempting a bid for Isle of Man or Faroese-style autonomy would create massive uncertainty. Yet some on Orkney and Shetland are calmly contemplating such a prospect.

Angus MacNeil suggests Tavish Scott should now put up or shut up and engineer a test of island opinion within the next six months to see if the self-governing ideas really command support.

It might seem like the tail wagging the dog. But then so does the campaign for more Scottish powers. Wording, funding, number of options, binding nature of outcome – clearly problems abound.

But Scotland needs to understand more about the Northern Isles’ “have-a-go” outlook and the true extent of their desire for more local control. Instead, politicians seem doomed to point-score into perpetuity rather than consider what might be learned from the thrawn folk of the Northern Isles about powerful communities, land reform and self-government.

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