Last month Shetland MSP Tavish Scott grabbed the international headlines by demanding home rule for the Scottish islands. As the excitement over his remarks recedes, northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael sets out his views on greater autonomy and floats the idea of a constitutional convention for the northern isles.
There are very few immutable truths in politics but one of them is that government, by its very nature, will want to centralise control. Another is that for communities like ours centralised government will be bad government.
These truths have been understood in the isles since time immemorial. For years the answer to these concerns was that the creation of a Scottish Parliament would be the answer to all our problems.
In truth, in the years following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament it appeared that things were getting better.
Helped by the presence of people like Jim Wallace, Tavish Scott and Alasdair Morrison at the heart of what we then called the Scottish Executive the requirement of government to “island proof” legislation made a difference.
In retrospect, however, we could have done more to ensure that the process of devolution was one which continued beyond Edinburgh and that power was pushed down to local councils and communities.
The reason that we did not do so may have had as much to do with the politics and the media of the day as anything else.
The constant negativity displayed towards the parliament and the people who comprised it by a hostile and over-large press pack may have had a greater impact than any of us realised at the time.
In recent years the trickle of centralisation has grown to be a flood that threatens to suck influence and control from these islands over a whole range of crucial public services – the creation of single Scottish forces for police, fire and ambulance services has been bulldozed through with large questions left unanswered leaving many in the northern isles feeling profoundly uneasy about what the future holds.
The tendering process that led to a new operator getting the contract for the north boats exemplified in many ways the problem.
It was driven by ministers and officials in Edinburgh giving us the service that THEY thought WE needed. A different process would, I believe, have produced a very different service – one which was better designed to serve our needs.
The truth is, however, that it does not need to be like this and the current constitutional debate allows us the chance to reverse the trend by making the case for greater autonomy over how services are run in the isles.
Taking more control here locally is in the long term the best defence we can have against the steady and systematic removal of control and influence over our local services.
What does this mean? In truth, while there is a broad consensus in the community that change is needed and that local control is the answer to a steadily declining level of service, ask anyone on Commercial Street how much control they might want and of what and you will probably get as many answers as the number of people that you ask.
I am struck by the similarities between the debate in the Northern Isles today and the one in Scotland as a whole regarding the creation of a Scottish Parliament throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
There was a general agreement amongst politicians and wider civic Scotland that Scotland needed her own parliament. On the questions of how that should be achieved, what powers it should have and how it should be constituted, however, consensus seemed to be an impossible pipe dream.
Without that consensus the dream of a Scottish Parliament was always going to be exactly that – a dream.
The understanding of the need to build a consensus led eventually to the setting up of the Constitutional Convention where political parties, trades unions, local authorities and wider civic Scotland all came together to talk about what a Scottish Parliament would actually look like.
It was not a quick or easy process, but it was a necessary one as eventually, inch by painful inch, compromise was built and a blueprint for the parliament emerged.
It was not a process that would have worked if left to the political forces alone but by bringing in wider influences we were able to produce something that represented, as the late John Smith said, the settled will of the Scottish people.
What we need now in the isles is our own forum in which to have this conversation. Whatever you want to call it, we need our own constitutional convention.
Political parties, councillors and others can all have their view but no individual or group can own the process for themselves. That is the second lesson to be had from the constitutional convention.
The convention was underpinned by a distinctively Scottish view of sovereignty. The traditional English view (and I use the terms advisedly) was that sovereignty was vested in Parliament. The claim of right, to which all who formed the convention subscribed, took a different view. Sovereignty, it declared, was vested in the Scottish people.
Questions of sovereignty may be esoteric and appeal only to academics and constitutional geeks but they matter and they matter to us today if we are to embark upon this discussion.
If sovereignty is truly vested in the people then it is our right to have this discussion for ourselves and however nervous that may make nationalists (NB the lower case “n”) the localists amongst us cannot be denied.
So what sort of autonomy am I suggesting? Ultimately my view will be only one but for what it is worth I would advocate a gradualist approach albeit one that will maximise autonomy to the maximum level that community confidence will allow.
We might, however, do worse than to start by looking at marine and maritime services.
At present this is a pie in which government at all levels has a finger. The UK government through the MCA provides a coastguard station, emergency tug and search and rescue helicopter. The Scottish Government funds Marine Scotland, the Fisheries Protection Agency and different environmental bodies. The council and the port authority provide different harbour services including pilotage and tugs. The Crown Estate owns and manages the seabed. The RNLI, an entirely voluntary body, provides highly valued lifeboat services.
These numerous and diverse bodies all operate in their own areas but often with elements of overlap and sometimes with competing or contradictory priorities.
I do not believe that with a bit of imagination and flexibility the services that they provide could not be done better and more efficiently if they were brought under the umbrella of one body which was to be controlled here in the isles.
As island communities we have an inbuilt advantage in having smaller institutions with shorter lines of communications. As such it must be possible for us to deliver public services in the isles in a way that is different (and, for us, better) than the present model.
What I envisage would probably not work for communities like Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen. Fine – they can continue to do as they wish. I would not wish to impose a solution on their communities that did not work for them. All I ask is that they should return the favour.
In recent times one of the most vigorous campaigns that Shetland has seen was against the proposed closure of the coastguard station. As a minister in the coalition government I was able to take that message into government.
I am not going to speak here about how I was able to use my influence in government to take the community’s message into government and to achieve a rethink. You may learn that if I ever write my memoirs.
I do not claim all the credit for a successful outcome – there was a tremendous community-based campaign – but I believe that my role and influence in government made the difference in keeping the station open.
We would be foolish, however, to believe that the officials who wanted close the Shetland coastguard station have given up and gone away. That is not how the civil service works.
I would guess that we have a secure position for about ten to fifteen years but that they will try again with a new minister and a new government. Next time, I (or my successor) may not be in the position to intervene in the same way.
If the Shetland coastguard station is integrated with other marine and maritime bodies then its closure would be more difficult for civil servants in Southampton to achieve. Local control of services is the best protection for the local services that we value because we understand them and rely on them in a way that people in the centres of power never will.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum vote in 2014 it is clear that there is an opportunity for us to do things differently in the isles.
The question now is are we willing as a community to meet that challenge and to decide for ourselves what our destiny will be.
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