SCOTLAND’S islands are considering their options in this referendum year. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have got together to look at the future.
Islanders are heartily sick of seeing local powers removed and centralised. That has been a remorseless theme of the Scottish Government over many years. Police budgets used to be set locally. Now the islands have Strathclyde-style stop and search policing targets imposed on them. Further education colleges used to be local but are now subsumed into regional bodies with budgets set hundreds of miles away. Crucial decisions over lifeline transport links are taken by an Edinburgh government far removed from the reality of island life.
Against this background the Orkney MSP Liam McArthur and I argued that Scotland’s islands should seize the constitutional initiative. To a limited extent they have. Our Islands Our Future is the coming together of the three island local authorities. They have forced a ministerial working group out of the Scottish Government and can access UK Ministers whenever needed. That is real progress. But so far the agenda of change has been about things that may happen in the future. Despite the evidence, Scotland’s administration does not accept it has removed powers from local government and the islands. Strangely, the island councils have yet to push for a return of key responsibilities. They should.
The nationalist government want the islands to agree how much better everything would be with independence. Wiser island heads know that this is a trap. A Kirkwall conference last autumn concluded that the referendum misses the point. Whatever happens in 2014 will not alter the desire of these islands for more self-determination. So the island councils will not be used by Edinburgh as a pawn in the independence game. The civil service may write the SNP’s manifesto but the islands will not.
The SNP challenge others to detail any new powers Holyrood would gain in the event of a No vote. But do the islands believe that they would be a priority for Alex Salmond if Scotland votes Yes? As a fishermen on the Lerwick pier said last week, Edinburgh government is just as remote as London.
So the next phase of Our Islands Our Future needs to be more ambitious. The Isle of Man has enormous latitude to determine its future. But they build the best of both worlds. Manx people have health services that are linked to Liverpool hospitals. Their fishing fleet negotiates with English, Scottish and Irish boats over coastal fishing. They have created an international ship agency business which is profitable. This revenue then assists crucial transport links and the quality of local education. Their students study at universities across the UK. Autonomy and local decision making works. The people best able to determine the islands’ future are those who care most about that future – those who live and work there. Heard that before?