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Scottish Independence Debate / Comment: A Nordic future for Shetland?

Writer and Yes campaigner Christopher Silver.

EDINBURGH-BASED writer and filmmaker Christopher Silver, who was brought up in Aith, is currently working on a feature-length documentary on the Scottish independence referendum campaign. Here he sets out what the rest of Scotland can learn from Shetland’s example – and why democracy within the isles should be devolved from Lerwick Town Hall. 

“I don’t believe the Westminster system of government allows Scots to fully realise their ambitions, to adequately articulate their values or to fulfil their priorities.” (Ib Hansen, Nordic alliance sets example to Scots voters, The Scotsman, 08 January 2014)

For advocates of the union Shetland has long provided a stick with which to beat the SNP.

As one of the few parts of Scotland to reject a parliament in 1979, the isles’ oil, strategic location and unique identity, have seen them used as a political football ever since independence became a political possibility.

Perhaps this is why Tavish Scott is happy to talk up the idea of ‘home rule’ to score points against the Scottish Government. If Scotland can be independent, why can’t Shetland? More broadly the aim is to conjure up a future British Isles made up of isolated Forviks, with unilateral declarations from the Presbyterian Republic of Lewis and the Millport Free State to follow.

As Scott rightly identifies there are plenty of examples: the Faroe Islands and their relationship with Denmark; the Åland Islands with Finland. Yet what is so definitive about these successful examples of island autonomy is that, unlike in Britain, local government is far more accountable to the people it serves.

The coming year provides Shetland with an opportunity. Increasingly the kind of Scotland that folk in the central belt imagine after a Yes vote is Nordic in character. As a result, instead of being a political football, Shetland has the unique opportunity to lead the rest of Scotland by its own example. These isles, at the crossroads of the North Atlantic, could have a vital role to play in both allowing Scotland to forge new links with Scandinavia, and to transform its own troubled and unequal society by drawing inspiration from across the North Sea.

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Initiatives like Common Weal, Nordic Horizons and even flagship policies within the Scottish Government’s own white paper, look to the north and east, with the new structures of independence offering a precious opportunity to enact the best policies of our Nordic neighbours.

There’s also a more basic fact about Scottish independence and Shetland that is often overlooked. Shetland’s society in the past four decades is like a mirror image of Scotland’s. Shetland got the oil fund that those to its south did not. Shetland invested heavily in public services, while Scotland had to face the manufactured stigma of a ’subsidy junkie’. Shetland, though swindled into doing so, built houses and in doing so staved off what is now a nationwide housing crisis. In the rest of the country publicly funded house building rapidly declined post-1980.

As a result, in Shetland a big role for the state in your life is not the badge of failure it has become in some parts of the British Isles. The approach is far more akin to that of the Swedish Folkhemmet, or ‘people’s home’. In Sweden the state is not the top-down benefactor as in the UK; rather, it is the agent through which citizens share their wealth to the advantage of all.

The independence debate is really about perspective, not identity. Shetland is unique in the UK, perhaps even in the English speaking world, for having achieved Nordic standards of public services and infrastructure. With the Our Islands, Our Future campaign offering the prospect of a new status as part of an independent Scotland, this legacy can be protected.

Social cohesion (a relative lack of class division and strong community bonds) is a hallmark of Shetland life – but it would be folly to take them for granted, or to let the SIC’s short-termism and addiction to expensive consultants obscure it.

Of course, the referendum is not a vote on the ‘Nordic Model’, it’s about sovereignty. Though the SNP has already borrowed its keystone policy on childcare from Sweden, it is obviously reluctant to talk in too much detail about Swedish income tax.

On the other hand, as Lesley Riddoch has outlined in her brilliant book Blossom, Nordic success is built on effective local democracy and empowered communities: something which Scotland sorely lacks. Some experts argue that we have no local democracy, just regional governments. Our “local” authorities are the largest in Europe. The Faroe Islands have 30 municipalities; the Åland Islands have 16. Shetland has one.

Perhaps this kind of radical change is what places like Shetland need (though at least the SIC, unlike Highland Council, does not represent an area the size of Belgium). If “greater autonomy” simply transfers power from Holyrood to the Town Hall, this would be an opportunity wasted. Perhaps this is why successive attempts at promoting different forms of ‘home rule’ in the isles get a lukewarm reception: they tend not to dwell on how a more powerful Shetland government would also be a healthier, more accountable one.

The average size of local government in the EU is 5,630 people. In Norway half of the municipalities have under 5,000 inhabitants, many less than the catchment area of a junior high school. Now, there’s an interesting thought. Rather than protests at the town hall, a truly Nordic style of local government would see decision making radically decentralised from Lerwick. Perhaps such healthy, participative local democracy would mean less division in the wake of big spending or planning decisions and the inevitable entrenchment of those for or against.

Division is easily nurtured in any rural community and I don’t claim that Shetland is a utopia. But I do think that the legacy of brave political decisions that sought to share the isles’ wealth can play a much bigger role in informing the debate that Scotland is having with itself. Though our Nordic neighbours are close to us in so many ways, when it comes to democracy we seem far more reluctant to trust each other to participate and take responsibility.

Then again, power is so centralised by the union, it’s little wonder that many in the north simply switch off. Despite this imbalance, the northernmost reaches of the British Isles are far more vibrant, distinctive and cosmopolitan than many give them credit for.

It was in Shetland that I took my first tentative steps towards support for independence. Two Shetland campaigns: one against the Iraq war and another against the entirely arbitrary deportation of two settled families in 2004, are where my personal journey towards a Yes vote began.

Though the families in question were allowed to stay, the UK border agency did not learn its lesson. The shameful detention of Sakchai Makao in 2006 bears witness to this.

Let’s remember the union is not about abstract ideas of loyalty or identity. It’s a political union. Dawn raids to fulfil Home Office regulations are a part of the reality of the UK that we live in.

The tools to make a rational immigration policy to tackle an ageing, declining population are vital. They will not be delivered in a UK where both Labour and Tory are determined to make immigration laws even more stringent. In a country obsessed with the strain on public services in the south east of England, immigration will become even more of a defining issue for British politics, but not in the way that Shetland, or Scotland, needs it to be.

Are islands insular places? Shetland’s history tells us otherwise. Islands have to look out and welcome new arrivals in order to survive. Such a global outlook does not take away from the fundamental democratic point about voting Yes: people who call Shetland home, wherever they’re from, are the best people to make decisions about Shetland’s future.

To fully protect that future, the isles need to do like the Nordics once again by moving politics out of the council chamber and the chief executive’s office to bring it closer to the people.

Christopher Silver


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