What’s happening in Orkney?


by Steven Heddle

The regional list results for Orkney reveals startling news: Orkney is finally questioning why it votes for the Liberals.

The regional result shows 2906 votes for the SNP (up 955 since 2007) and 2062 votes for the Liberal Democrats (down 660 since 2007), a remarkable turnaround. To clarify how seismic this is, in every parliamentary election for Orkney & Shetland since 1837 a Liberal has been returned, apart from 15 years of Tory representation from 1935-1950.

Since devolution Orkney has always returned a Liberal Democrat to the Scottish Parliament, but last Thursday’s result shows that Liam McArthur polled only 36% of the vote: the last time a Liberal of any flavour gathered such a small share of the vote in any Holyrood or Westminster election was when Jo Grimond was beaten in 1945 on his first attempt at the seat. By contrast the SNP share this time was 25.1%, their largest ever.  

This share was surely dramatically reduced as well (a hypothesis supported by the regional list result) by the intervention of a plausible local independent candidate, James Stockan, who pushed the buttons of those who wished to believe that someone needed to go and ‘sort out that shower at Holyrood’.

You could almost call that an ‘Orkney Islands Council campaign’ model, except the rallying cry in this case is to ‘sort out that shower at School Place.’

And that is a problem of Orkney politics- it is often parochial and short-sighted. Just as the councillor elected on the ‘sort out that shower at School Place’ ticket becomes depressed as he realises that a) it’s not the root of all evil that he thought, and b) the decisions are not made by one person anyway, so would an independent MSP struggle on their own. Or even a small group of 5 Lib Dems on their own. There is a need to work together, for common aims. There is a need to contribute to things that do not interest you but affect the people you represent. There is a need to articulate ideas that are those of your electorate but not necessarily your own.

There should also be a need to be honest with the people voting for you and let them clearly know what you stand for on all the issues facing the parliament or council. Otherwise what are they voting for?

Being a weel kent face has worked well for the Liberals, but at least a section of the electorate are looking deeper than that. The Lib Dems maintain that their vote has oscillated in the past, but the foregoing discussion shows that what happened last Thursday is way out of the ordinary.

Alistair Carmichael claimed on Radio Orkney this morning (Monday 9th May) that they should have perhaps attacked the SNP more, and trotted out two hoary old chesnuts that they had in fact been attacking the SNP on for the whole campaign. In fact all the candidates did nothing other than attack the SNP, presumably to avert gaze from their own policies, or absence thereof.

But nonetheless, here we are set for another 5 years in the political wilderness. Liam McArthur will struggle even more, as part of the rump of the Lib Dems surrounded by a thumping SNP majority that doesn’t need them. James Stockan would have been able to do even less. We could have had a seat for Orkney at the top table in the SNP government until the vote that was looking for change was split.

Note that the Westminster parliament was ignored in the previous paragraph. That was originally an oversight, but on reflection is an implied statement of fact. Devolution has been embraced by the Scottish people, and they are getting a taste for running their own affairs. Increasingly Westminster is just for the bad things in life, like Tory cuts, Lib Dem broken promises, or illegal wars.

This is the changed political reality that we are coming round to in Orkney, albeit a little slower than mainland Scotland. Part of the reason for this is that as an island group and small local authority with money in the bank we have been insulated from change, and this includes cuts. We aren’t hard done by- our roads are good, our ferries and freight links are the best ever, and agriculture gets as much additional subsidy in the county as the value of the entire council grant. So far we have been spoilt, and if the government were to turn against us, we’d know all about it. Who could blame them when we doggedly bite the hand that feeds us? We didn’t need to sort them out. They aren’t our adversaries. But we do need to work with them.

To know what it could be like, we just need to look at Thurso, or Wick, places that are looking for crumbs from the Highland Council table, like we could be looking for crumbs from the Scottish Government table. That never sounded very appetising.

At least the Liberal hegemony is being challenged.

Will this continue into future elections, or is apathy the dominant political force? Only 49% of the electorate were motivated enough to vote, and it would be fascinating to know the demographics of this. Do young people here just not vote, and is the electorate thus dying out?

Or are the young people the ones helping challenge the status quo, at last? After 174 years, it’s about time.



Visit Steven’s site here. Or email Steven: steven @ kw15.co.uk