Lesley Riddoch: Let Faroes be our inspiration

A  view of Koltur island  from the harbour basin of Midvagur in the  Faroe Islands.. Pciture: Getty Images
A view of Koltur island from the harbour basin of Midvagur in the Faroe Islands.. Pciture: Getty Images
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Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit options paper has clearly made a mark. One indication is the number of erstwhile political rivals supporting the tone and objectives of the First Minister’s proposal for a separate Scottish EU deal. Former Labour MSP for Leith Malcolm Chisholm tweeted: “I can’t find anything in ScotGov Brexit Plan to disagree with and hope all parties will get behind it.”

Mark Lazarowicz, a Scottish Labour MP for 14 years described the SNP leader’s plan as workable and sensible and called for a mature and consensual response rather than “knee-jerk” opposition. Indeed Labour’s former first minister Henry McLeish has already suggested Sturgeon should lead a campaign for a second EU referendum across the whole UK because of Scotland’s overwhelming Remain vote and Sturgeon’s confident leadership since 23 June. Kezia Dugdale has poured tepid if not stone-cold water on the growing consensus; “If Nicola Sturgeon really wants to unite the country, she should take this opportunity to rule out another independence referendum.” But that weary, dutiful reference to a cause Nicola Sturgeon clearly supports but hasn’t much mentioned, rather misses the point. Right now there’s a strong case for throwing caution and old arguments to the wind and demonstrating cross-party consensus for a deal that lets Scotland remain in the single market. Of course the bid may not succeed. But it’s what most Scots and MSPs want, so is the possibility of failure a reason not to try?

There’s another certain sign the Brexit options paper has legs – political opponents have picked on extraordinarily minor issues to try and derail it.

The First Minister’s proposal says Scotland could follow the example of the Faroe Islands which is applying to join the European Free trade Association (EFTA), despite not being an independent country and it refers to a press article, which reports Icelandic backing for the Faroese application. But now it transpires the Faroese have taken ten years to get this far – apparently a killer blow for Nicola Sturgeon’s scheme. The Scots Lib Dem leader says it would be “complete madness” to think, “a nation the size of Scotland could just sail straight in” to EFTA.

Well yes. Complete madness coupled with a guid conceit of yourself, utter determination and sheer optimism. All of the above are needed to transform Scotland from a tiny, irrelevant region whose political leaders automatically expect exclusion and second best into a nation ready to become one of the biggest players in the North Atlantic.

It’s true the Faroese parliament first gave approval to “begin membership negotiations with EFTA” in May 2006. But the last Faroese government had little or no interest in membership, so the bid sat on hold until a new government restarted the process in 2015. It seems each time Scotland tries to take a leap forward, some political leaders are simply horrified.

They would do well to learn more about the gutsiness of the tiny territory with which Ms Sturgeon seeks to compare Scotland. A trip there this summer was certainly the highlight of my year.

In 1944 Iceland declared independence while “Mother” Denmark was occupied by Germany. When a Faroese referendum produced a 50.7 per cent Yes vote two years later, the Danes lost no time in offering the islanders a truly powerhouse devolved parliament instead. Now the Løgting has 33 MPs who represent just 49,000 people on 18 islands sitting 200 miles north west of northern Scotland.

The Løgting raises its own taxes – bands, rates and all – and doesn’t need permission from Denmark to create new ones. It controls key areas of the economy like energy and would not have been forced to stand by and watch if Copenhagen axed subsidies for renewable energy as Westminster has done. The Faroese language is taught in schools and used at the Faroes University whose graduates help produce a nightly TV bulletin that reflects the islanders’ ultra-local perspective on local, Nordic, and international news and a full daytime schedule on Radio Faroes.

The Smyril ferry company (largely government owned) sails to Iceland and Denmark (Scotland currently has no international ferry links) and Atlantic Airways (also government-owned) has three aircraft connecting locals with Iceland, Denmark, seasonal holiday destinations and Edinburgh. The Edinburgh-Torshavn flight is quicker than Edinburgh-Shetland because the Faroese aircraft are more powerful. They have a better landing rate than Shetland too despite sharing the same summer fog-bank because Faroese planes are equipped with better GPS. They have 4G broadband throughout the islands and out to the edge of their 200 mile fishing limit – and that hard-won fishery is the main reason the Faroes remained outside the European Union in 1972 when Denmark joined. They were able to opt out because the Løgting has been able to sign international treaties since 1946. The Faroes are currently outside the European Economic Area since the EEA underpins the EU, Denmark is already a member and only sovereign states like Iceland and Norway can join. But that doesn’t seem to bother them. All the Faroese want from EFTA membership is access to the 40-odd trade deals they’ve set up – they don’t want or need a European Big Brother. They also want to speak for themselves, and the interests of the North Atlantic, at the Nordic and Arctic Councils and the World Trade Organisation. If that’s not possible as part of Denmark they are ready to seek independence.

Perhaps that’s why – even though control over foreign policy rests with Denmark -- the Faroes have cheekily established “a diplomatic presence” in Moscow, Brussels, London and Reykjavik with plans to extend their reach to Washington and Greenland. It’s heady stuff.

Scotland’s population is 108 times bigger and we have commercial oil, gas and coal deposits, agricultural land and an industrial base they lack. Still Scots view their nation as small and peripheral, whilst the Faroese regard us as a sleeping giant. That’s why Nicola Sturgeon had such a rapturous reception when she became the first Scottish First Minister to speak at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik in October.

There is something inspiring about the unassuming ambition of the Faroese. Critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s equally feisty plans for Scotland must respond in kind or suffer by comparison.