Brian Wilson: Shetland has the right to go it alone

Shetland has fish stocks, renewable energy and a world-class environment. Picture: Denis Straughan
Shetland has fish stocks, renewable energy and a world-class environment. Picture: Denis Straughan
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The SNP poured scorn on the idea of the islands leaving Scotland, but its people deserve a say, argues Brian Wilson

From my Hebridean vantage point, I have been observing with interest the flutters of constitutional dissent in the islands further north. The assumption that they should be taken for granted as bit players in the mainland’s long march to destiny has not been well received.

In response to the rubbishing of a report which suggested that Shetland would have a claim to 25 per cent of North Sea riches in the event of constitutional upheaval, the local Liberal Democrat MSP, Tavish Scott, thundered: “It is outrageous that the SNP would stop Shetland asserting its rights to our share of oil and gas revenues in the event of separation.”

The report by Capital Economics had pointed to Shetland’s “strong position” in making a deal for itself based on North Sea oil assets as part of the independence negotiations. In a lofty put-down, Alex Salmond asserted that “Shetland will remain part of Scotland after independence”. The Great White Emperor has spake, so it must be so.

Salmond’s long-time amanuensis, Stewart Stevenson, went further, declaring Shetland to be “too small” to manage an oil industry. Since the Shetlanders have spent 40 years doing exactly that, with considerable expertise and success, it did seem a rather unfortunate line of argument. In any case, what is “too small” if people feel themselves to be a different economic and cultural entity?

Iceland has a population equivalent to Paisley, but was held up as a shining example when the Arc of Prosperity was more fashionable. Even more pertinently, the Faroes have a population of under 50,000 and enjoy substantial autonomy from Denmark, with the realistic prospect of full independence in the near future. So what is “too small”, other than whatever the SNP declares it to be?

Depending on what day of the week it is, we are variously asked to admire Iceland, Ireland, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway or Bhutan as our role models, with cherries carefully picked and the bad bits left out. Yet when a genuine parallel is produced, such as the one between the Faroes and Shetland, the Bravehearts queue up to pour scorn and dismiss it.

The Faroes have been under Danish rule since 1380, while Shetland did not join Scotland until 1450. Now, sensible people might say that it is crazy to start breaking up countries which have co-existed in beneficial union for hundreds of years. However, that is not an argument that the Scottish Nationalists are in a position to deploy since it is exactly what they exist to achieve.

There is little evidence that Shetland particularly wants to be independent, but there is no evidence at all that it wants to be part of a separate Scotland. Like the great majority of people throughout Scotland, it had no great interest in the question being posed at all, but now that it is being forced upon us in slow motion, everyone has to come up with an answer.

Shetland has consistently indicated that it is happy to be part of the UK but does not much fancy being run from Edinburgh. Is it not entitled to formalise its view one way or another if the need arises? It would be interesting to hear the intellectual case from one of our Nationalist thinkers for Scotland, denying the same rights to Shetland as Denmark has freely granted to the Faroes since 1948, with increasing powers of autonomy evolving in the interim.

This takes me back to an old argument. I was always very pro-devolution, according to my own understanding of the term. I just did not equate it with centralisation of all Scottish decision-making and administration in Edinburgh, which is actually what has been happening at an alarming pace over the past few years, just as some of us predicted.

The Scottish Government obviously aspires to gaining more power from Whitehall, and that is the cause to which most of its rhetoric is devoted. But in the meantime, it is an awful lot easier to suck power and resources away from the periphery in order to strengthen political control in Edinburgh. As Tavish Scott said: 
“We have had five years of losing powers and responsibilities to a Nationalist government in the Central Belt.”

There is an initiative from Orkney to bring itself together with Shetland and the Western Isles to create a common front on constitutional issues. Together, they would represent around 70,000 people – halfway between the Faroes and Iceland. If they wanted to form a Council of the Isles with a Faroese-style autonomy over their territorial waters, what right would a newly established Scottish state have to deny them that?

One of the great Scottish myths is that the islands are subsidy-dependent, a drain on central resources. They have always been treated as indebted beneficiaries of largesse rather than as the economic assets that more than pay their way. Even leaving aside oil and gas, they have fish, renewable energy, a world-class environment… the islands and surrounding territorial waters have them all. And they would have done much, much better with localised control over them.

Here in the Western Isles, the biggest economic asset should always have been fish. But because management was conducted on a national rather than regional basis, crucial stocks were repeatedly wiped out – principally by the insatiably greedy trawler barons of the Scottish north-east, whose interests were treated in Edinburgh as being synonymous with those of the “Scottish fishing industry”.

If the Western Isles enjoyed the same degree of control over fisheries as does the Faroes, then these would be vastly different places today. Ditto with all the other key natural resources. As it is, the population figures are dire and the demography is getting steadily worse, while the language and culture suffer the corollary of decline. The case for autonomy has been made by the failure of centralism.

I have concentrated on the islands’ case because (a) it is neatly self-contained, (b) it exposes the hilarious double-standard over Shetland’s oil and (c) because I am sitting on one. But other parts of Scotland face the same issue – local control or ever-increasing Edinburgh centralisation – and it is not a debate that a referendum will resolve.