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Letters / Joined up

In his response to my recent post, Ian Tinkler (Twaddle; SN 14/5/12) purports not to understand the phrase “joined-up manifesto”.

I guess in some ways “manifesto” would be sufficient and “joined-up” would be superfluous when describing any political party/group/alliance stated list of policies or intentions.

However “joined-up” would imply that rather than just making a list of policies, these policies would be thought through and explained in terms of how they interact in effect, how they might be funded, staffing implications, timescale and so on.

“Joined-up” is not something that can be taken for granted in the manifestos of many political parties.

“Joined-up” has certainly come to mean “demonstrable consideration of inter-relatedness and consequences” I guess, since he asks me to define it. I note the definition of “twaddle” is trivial or foolish speech or writing.

I don’t think it is trivial (maybe foolish to put my head above the parapet – come on, I don’t need to explain every idiom, surely) to air some thoughts that I am not sure I hold as views, but to explore whether anyone reacts to them and in what way.

Gordon Harmer defends independent councillors (Independents are good; SN 15/5/12) and I agree with him that “national concerns often do not translate well into local government issues”.

In fact it is probably because of voters attitudes to national parties that local independent candidates avoid declaring any political allegiance – none of the national parties or leading politicians is currently well regarded.

However I would suggest that the relatively high local election turnout in Shetland was not because of the abundant choice of independent candidates, as he suggests, but because of the widespread concern about many local issues, not least the windfarm and the growing mistrust of the outgoing council’s competence: that is what particularly galvanised Shetland voters.

However that still does not solve the issue I raised, that while you may vote for this or that independent candidate – that candidate if elected is a lone voice and his/her subsequent alliances and actions within the council is unpredictable.

Gordon Harmer decries the “party decision-making done behind closed doors in Westminster and Holyrood”. Surely that (party) decision making is done at party conferences to a great extent, conferences open to members of that party and mostly to the press, and what goes on in government (outside of the workings of cabinets and departments) is debated between government and opposition in Westminster or Holyrood in full public view.

At the end we have the Freedom of Information Act to try to get at the truth of what is on record.

In contrast, at SIC the decision making done behind closed doors at the Toon Hall only comes about after the voting, when cliques and alliances between independent candidates are formed off the record to vie for majority groupings and key posts.

Since several robust characters of different views have been elected it will be interesting to see how this evolves and operates – but the outcome will not be predictable and will not have been voted for, and will end up with a governing clique (probably eventually as patronising and defensive as the last lot) – and no organised opposition for consistent debate but, as usual, a series of individual councillors outside that clique who gripe from the sidelines.

I am not advocating that council candidates should declare along national party lines, but it might be desirable (to the voter) that candidates of sympathetic and like views on local issues declare those views and alliances before an election – maybe even form themselves into a local party or alliance – and that more than one such alliance might emerge so that a choice can be given to voters not only between candidates as individuals but between the policy packages (manifestos) they support.

I note the only candidate to even mention seeking other candidates’ views (presumably not in the same ward) was Drew Ratter – and nothing seemed to come from it.

That I got onto this subject at all was really a reaction to Tavish Scott’s essentially mischievous comments on Shetland’s constitutional position and his suggestion that Shetland should seek more autonomy.

Most Shetlanders (OK – maybe not recent arrivals) feel some affinity with Scandinavia, especially Norway which they regard as their motherland, and have little cultural (or genetic) affiliation with Celtic Scotland, and resent being seen as part of Scotland’s Celtic heritage by the uninformed, who mostly never heard of Norn.

Further there is a sense in Shetland that Scotland imposed its feudal system on Shetland, allowing earls and lairds to prosper and taking away the old Udal Norse freehold land tenure, so there is some animosity to Scottish government in general.

However the ignorance of Shetland’s cultural heritage does not stop at the Scottish border, and certainly in the past the remote Westminster government (or UK monarch) has abused Shetlanders’ rights and interests (such as Hansa abolition, or press gangs).

However it came about and whatever the actual constitutional position is currently, pragmatically Shetland has been part of Scotland for nearly 550 years and there has been a considerable interchange of peoples, especially with the Doric Scots (as opposed to the Celtic Scots).

I would guess that most native Shetlanders would also consider themselves Scottish (or even in denial would have Scottish ancestry) – and would not consider themselves also Norwegian or English.

While the constitutional position is unclear (whether or not Scotland votes for independence in the upcoming referendum – personally I don’t think it will be “yes”), politicians are already playing games around this, and one such game is to ask the Nationalists to explain Shetland’s constitutional position should Scotland vote for independence (Shetland appears to be a crown protectorate – not Scottish or English- since Charles II’s time, but is administered as if it is a Scottish county, and earldoms have been granted with no obvious right – and all that ignores that Denmark, or is it Norway, has a legitimate claim to sovereignty).

This has already been raised recently by some Tory grandee at Westminster, before Tavish and his liberal Orkney MSP colleague raised it this week (although Orkney’s position is different). Not, I would guess, for any benefit for Shetland, but to attack the Nationalists and support the Union (strange – supporting the Union by suggesting Shetland be less united with Scotland or the UK – or even encouraging ceding to Norway or Denmark).

So what has all this to do with independent or party-affiliated council candidates?

Well – I don’t suppose there will be a specific question on this in any referendum, and independent councillors have not declared any position which would allow them claim electoral consent to seek such powers.

That has not stopped some in the past (, but I do recall there was a local party called the Orkney and Shetland Movement for which John Goodlad fought the 1987 general election (in which the Nats stood aside in his favour) – in which they came only fourth with 14% of the vote – hardly supporting the claim that Shetlanders want more autonomy.

You don’t hear much of the Shetland Movement these days, but it was a party or alliance that came together around local (Shetland) issues, and demonstrates that such alliances are possible – and folk can either vote for them or not.

When it comes to seeking extra powers, this or any other council of independents has no mandate for that, and that surely would require a referendum (just like was promised over the windfarm). However be careful what you wish for.

Back to joined-up thinking – it is no good just asking for extra powers. Such powers would still require a grant of funds from somewhere (central government) to exercise such powers (such as negotiating a subsidised ferry contract), would require expertise to be bought in to advise since that wouldn’t be handled by the civil service – which would require outside consultants and/or an expansion of local administrative staff (at a time of cutbacks) since appropriate skills for newly-delegated powers would not exist, and so on.

I suggest that the new SIC has enough on its hands, is between a rock and a hard place on Viking Energy/STC, has to implement a program of cuts but maintain essential services (and hopefully some feeling of well-being in these relatively prosperous islands), and should not be getting above itself in seeking more autonomy for Shetland but should be wary of the political games which may be played around this issue.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. If Shetland were to go for more autonomy, maybe being forced to because of a changing UK constitutional position, any proposed changes would need a referendum, and any change in status might need a new body to govern it.

In such circumstances it may be that a more complex administration would need local parties to be formed to compete to run it.

Robin Barclay
Sandwick & Midlothian —