Shetland and Scotland

As Scotland redefines its relationship with the rest of the UK, the debate on Shetland’s constitutional future is long overdue, says John Goodlad.

There is absolutely no doubt that, whatever the outcome of the independence referendum in 2014, there will be substantial constitutional change in Scotland.

If there is a ‘yes’ vote then Scotland will become an independent nation some 700 years after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. If the ‘yes’ vote fails to secure a majority, then there will most likely be the transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament – the so called ‘devo max’ option. Few observers believe the status quo will prevail after 2014.

Within this context of major Scottish constitutional change after 2014, what do Shetlanders want? I believe there is an opportunity to argue with great force and with good prospects for more autonomy for Shetland. But there are dangers.

There has always been a huge interest in the future of Shetland by UK politicians of all parties who want to use the Shetland card against the SNP. How can the SNP advocate oil rich independence for Scotland, they argue, when Shetlanders want nothing to do with Scotland and might take the oil wealth themselves.

The national media also love this angle. But make no mistake – this interest in Shetland and flattery of Shetlanders is all about opposition to constitutional change in Scotland and nothing at all to do with the best interests of Shetland.

If there is to be a debate in Shetland about our future relationship with Scotland then let it be a real debate and let us make sure that the Shetland question is not used as a stick to beat the SNP.

Of all the political parties, the SNP have traditionally been the most supportive of Shetland autonomy. The party line has always been that Shetland should have as much autonomy as the islanders wish.

There has unfortunately been little evidence of this great principle from the SNP since they came to power. More and more services are being centralised and there has been no debate whatsoever within the SNP on the Shetland question.

But can we expect the national parties to debate the Shetland question without evidence of a demand for this amongst Shetlanders?

The Shetland Movement was very active in the 1980s and 1990s and in many ways its existence brought an energy and spark to local politics that has been sadly lacking ever since.

Whether or not there is an appetite for another autonomy movement (either as a separate political party or as a cross party pressure group) time alone will tell. One thing is however clear. When the Shetland Movement was at its most active and popular the prospects for Shetland autonomy were actually very poor – this was the era of Thatcherism. The prospects for local autonomy are so much better now given the huge constitutional debate that will follow the referendum vote in 2014.

But Shetland autonomy will not just happen. It has to be defined, articulated and campaigned for.

I have always believed that Shetland should have greater control over its own affairs. There are many and varied arguments as to why Shetlanders would benefit from greater autonomy. For me the philosophy underlying all these arguments is that we are different from Scotland.

The costs of being an island some 12 hours by ferry from Aberdeen, the dependence of our economy on oil and fish and our different history all set us apart. This is not anti Scottish in any way – on the contrary Shetlanders are by and large proud of all their Scottish connections. It is simply a statement of fact.

One of the main arguments against greater autonomy for Shetland is that this will mean giving more control to the SIC. This does not necessarily follow.

Two examples:

The success of the Shetland Regulating Order in conserving Shetland shellfish stocks is a case in point. This is a successful local industry initiative and an example of autonomy (not involving the SIC) working for the benefit of Shetlanders.

A second example is the recent scandal regarding our lifeline service to Aberdeen being reduced to a single ferry for several months. Who believes that this would have happened if our ferry company were owned, based and operated in Shetland?

The choice of 2014 as the year for the independence referendum is no accident given the 700 year anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. As Shetlanders begin to debate their constitutional future vis a vis Scotland they would do well to reflect that, at the time of Bannockburn, Shetland was not even part of Scotland at all.    

John Goodlad stood as the Orkney and Shetland Movement candidate in the 1987 General Election.