Tavish Scott: Orkney and Shetland could secede from Scotland

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By a Newsnet reporter

In a paper submitted to the UK Government’s consultation on the independence referendum, Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur, Lib Dem MSPs for Orkney and Shetland, claim that Orkney and Shetland may decide to remain a part of the UK if the rest of Scotland votes for independence.

Mr Scott and Mr McArthur express their concern that the constitutional debate has been muted in the islands, but believe that the independence referendum and the consultation exercises being run by both Westminster and Holyrood offer the islanders their best chance in decades of deciding on the future government of the islands.  Despite this, the Lib Dem MSPs have chosen not to respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum.

Quoting the late Jo Grimmond, who said,  “The last thing the Northern Isles want is to be ruled by Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers”, Mr Scott and Mr McArthur argue that the islands risk being sidelined in the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future.

The MSPs conclude that there are three options open to the islands in the current constitutional debate.

To retain their current constitutional position within the UK and as part of Scotland but negotiate additional responsibility over key public sector areas.

Enhanced powers or independence from Scotland if Scotland were to vote for independence but the Northern isles voted no.  

Enhanced constitutional and tax status within the UK.  The Faroes provide one model with links to Denmark.  The Isle of Man and Channel Islands offer various models of island communities that constitute themselves in different ways from the rest of the UK.

The Lib Dem MSPs’ report goes on to explain:  

“The Northern Isles therefore will want to use the current debate about Scotland’s future to fully assess their needs and aspirations and ensure that these are properly reflected in whatever constitutional arrangements are settled upon.  Orkney and Shetland are likely to have different requirements and potentially different destinations on this constitutional journey but they share a strong sense of local identity.”

In 2008, Sandy Cluness, an independent councillor and convenor of Shetland Council, called for a Shetland Assembly with taxraising powers, and for range of services to be devolved from Edinburgh to the islands, including transport, policing, coastal protection, in-shore fisheries, further education and the arts.

Mr Cluness continued: “There are plenty of examples of semi-autonomous islands across Europe and most of them actually do much better than we do.  In future we will be looking to discuss Shetland’s constitutional future with the Scottish government with a view to securing the best possible deal.”

The statement from the Council Convenor was welcomed by First Minister Alex Salmond, who said: “The views of the Shetland Islands Council are an excellent example of the national conversation in action – all such ideas can be proposed, and we can reach a view on the best way forward.”

Mr Cluness’ remarks were partially supported by Tavish Scott, however the Lib Dem MSP rejected any idea of Shetland seceding from Scotland.  Speaking to the Shetland Times in 2008 he said: “I am in favour of greater powers for Shetland, but they need to sit within a coherent structure for the whole of Scotland.  I’m more than happy to work with the council on their ideas, but obviously they are for the longer term.”

Now that Scotland is planning the referendum on independence which Mr Scott’s party fought to prevent, the former Lib Dem leader has apparently had a change of heart on the need for greater autonomy for Shetland to “sit within a coherent structure for the whole of Scotland”.  

The SNP has repeatedly stated that it is in favour of greater autonomy for the islands in an independent Scotland.  The SNP’s policy at successive elections has supported the Northern Isles’ right to self-determination and the party has stated its willingness to grant additional autonomy to the islands after Scottish independence.

In part the new intervention from Mr Scott and Mr McArthur may be motivated by fear of the increasing support the SNP enjoys in the Northern Isles.  In last year’s Holyrood election the SNP came a close second behind the Lib Dems in returns from Shetland for the Highland and Islands list seat. A mere 287 votes separated the Lib Dems on 2,975 and the SNP on 2,688, meaning that just under 30% of Shetlanders who voted, voted SNP.

Organised demands for home-rule in Orkney and Shetland are closely associated with the SNP.  During the 1987 Westminster General Election, the SNP was in an electoral agreement with the Orkney and Shetland Movement and refrained from standing candidates in the islands.  However since the demise of the Orkney and Shetland Movement, there has been no organised political campaign in the islands for greater autonomy.

Writing in the Shetland Times, local journalist Paul Riddell remarks that following the disaster which befell the Lib Dems in last year’s Holyrood elections, and Mr Scott’s resignation as leader, the local MSP and his party have been marginalised in Scottish politics and this gives Mr Scott the opportunity to indulge in “mischief making”.  

Mr Riddell characterises Mr Scott’s comments as “political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position”, saying:

“Of course Mr Scott should be pushing for the best possible deal for Shetland, but he says he does not believe that Scotland, never mind Shetland, will vote for independence, so this is surely political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position.”

A spokesperson for the SNP said:  “Shetland and Orkney are an important and valued part of Scotland.  That will remain the case with independence and the SNP have always been open to greater autonomy for the Northern Isles in an independent Scotland.”

The paper from Mr Scott and Mr McArthur can be read in full click here.