Tomorrow is Shetland flag day. Civic buildings and many households will fly the islands’ own flag. On Saturday, Lerwick hosts a conference on ancient Norse parliaments, known as Things.
The word is old Norse for assembly and the conference brings Norwegians, Icelanders, Orcadians, Manx and Highland delegates to the Shetland capital. Things were a fundamental component of Viking society and are described by some scholars as the cradle of democracy as they brought representatives together to avoid disputes ending in battles.
All in all, the islands’ identity genie is well and truly out of the bottle. “Our Islands, Our Future” was unveiled this week by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney and Shetland Islands Council. It is a clear statement of intent. Government, whether in London or Edinburgh – to say nothing of Brussels – is considered remote, out of tune and fails to respond to island needs.
The island councils want policies that recognise remoteness and the challenge of maintaining public services. One-size-fits-all centralisation in Edinburgh simply does not work. It does not work across Scotland, but the analysis is exacerbated in the islands.
Take just two examples. The oil and gas industry are drivers of the northern isles’ economies. West of Shetland waters are alive with exploration of new oil and gas reserves. But skills are desperately needed and nowhere more than in engineering. Yet national employment polices on supporting apprenticeships stop at age 25. That is based on tackling youth unemployment across the country. But in the overheated North-east economy, there is a desperate need for people older than 25 to retrain. Many will work in the islands so flexibility on apprenticeships would get more people on to engineering courses and into workplaces. Yet policy has not adapted to industry and island needs.
The other area where little has happened is over the powers and functions of the Crown Estate and the use of the sea bed. If there is one area where the UK government could make a real difference for marine projects it is by devolving the powers over the sea bed. Devolving powers not to Edinburgh, as the Nationalists want, but to the islands.
The Crown Estate is a historical anachronism. This body provides an annual income to the UK Treasury. That comes from charges or taxes on economic activity for renewable projects, the aquaculture industry and many other users of the sea. Devolving these powers to the islands would be positive indication that the economic case for the islands’ future is understood in London as well as Edinburgh.
The constitutional debate is full of unanswered questions. Here is one more: will the SNP reverse six years of a centralised government and respect the islands’ right to make up their own mind about their economic and political future?
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland