THOSE favouring Scottish independence ended up comfortably outnumbering those backing the union following a two-hour debate at the Althing in Tingwall Hall on Saturday night.
Debating the motion “The time is right for Scottish independence” were SNP list MSP Mike Mackenzie and Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael.
At the outset the 150-strong audience were almost split down the middle, with 58 backing independence and 57 preferring to remain within the UK, while 31 were undecided.
Come the night’s end, a sizeable swing had seen the number favouring separation rise to 70 while support for the union fell to 48, leaving 22 still to make up their minds.
On an all-male platform Mackenzie and Carmichael were backed, respectively, by local SNP activist Danus Skene and the Conservatives’ Perthshire-based European election hopeful Dr Ian Duncan.
Mackenzie got things underway by saying it was plainly wrong for a country of the UK’s wealth and resources to be the fourth most unequal western democracy. He pointed to a report published last week suggesting the richest five families in the UK had more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent of the population.
He argued that Scotland could learn a lot from the Nordic model, showing Scandinavian countries “outperform the UK on every statistic that can be measured, from education to health to wealth”.
A fuel poverty rate of 20 per cent across the UK was “unacceptably high” in the twenty first century, but a rate approaching 50 per cent in Scotland’s islands was “quite tragic” and a by-product of inequality.
With Oil & Gas UK estimating there are 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil left in the North Sea, 90 per cent in Scottish waters – and the prospect of generating ten times’ Scotland’s own energy needs through wind, wave and tidal energy – it was “very difficult not to see a prosperous future”.
Mackenzie said renewables could play a crucial role in rekindling Scotland’s manufacturing industry and help avoid having “all our economic eggs in too few baskets”.
He outlined a vision of a Trident-free Scotland spending less on fighting wars and more on childcare, schools and hospitals.
If Scotland votes yes on 18 September, Mackenzie added, its residents would wake up the next morning and notice “nothing cataclysmic at first, but gradually the two ships of state will move apart in slightly different directions”.
As the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s main representative north of the border, Northern Isles MP Carmichael has a high profile in the debate nationally. He began his address by saying he shared his opponent’s desire to make society fairer.
There is a lot to be said for the Nordic model of social provision, he said. Taking the example of Denmark, however, its high standard of public services comes through taxation equivalent to 47 per cent of the country’s GDP – whereas in the UK taxpayers only contribute 36 per cent of GDP.
“That’s one of the choices that you can make as a country,” Carmichael said. “You pay more to get more, and that’s the sort of choice that you make at every general election.”
However the SNP’s independence white paper proposes cutting corporation tax, while First Minister Alex Salmond “will not commit to raising the top rate of tax” to 50 pence.
“Beware of nationalists bearing gifts of Nordic models,” he said. “They come at a price.”
Carmichael reflected on the shared achievements the UK boasted – the post war creation of the NHS and welfare state in an effort to eradicate Beveridge’s five evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.
He said the UK continued to play a major role in world affairs through a seat on the UN Security Council and the G7 group of nations, while Scottish companies enjoyed “unfettered access to a market of 63 million, not five million, people”.
Carmichael reiterated claims by all three main parties at Westminster that Salmond’s desire for Scotland to enter a currency union with the remaining UK “will not happen”.
He conceded that the EU “probably would” readmit Scotland, but it would likely lose many perks such as the UK’s budget rebate and various other opt-outs from European regulations.
Carmichael concluded: “Ultimately, the ties that bind us are much greater than the differences that divide us, and that’s why, come the day of September 18, our future is best placed as part of the UK.”
Dispensing with a pre-prepared speech, Skene chose to directly address Carmichael’s arguments on the EU.
Recalling last autumn’s “our islands, our future” conference in Kirkwall, he said European constitutional expert Jean-Didier Hache made a “forceful case” that negotiating its own accession treaty was “a huge opportunity for Scotland” to barter a better deal over fisheries and agriculture.
On the currency, Skene said he was personally “quite relaxed about a plan B” if UK politicians really do stick to their guns and reject a currency union, though that would be a “unilateral breach of the treaty of union itself”.
Shetland “stands to benefit” from the opportunity for extra autonomy – possibly including a throughput tax from oil – whereas his former party the Lib Dems’ “home rule” mantra “simply hasn’t delivered” to date.
Duncan began his contribution by acknowledging that the sight of a Conservative politician is something of a rarity in these parts. The same applies across Scotland where, as the SNP regularly points out, there are more pandas than Tory MPs.
The man the Tories hope will replace Struan Stevenson as an MEP after May’s European elections dismissed the notion that Scotland could improve its lot by renegotiating the terms of its EU membership.
If individual member states took “one small thing”, Scotland would have less – for example if the Spanish wanted some of its North Sea quota, or the Dutch made a grab for its pelagic fishing allocation.
Referring to how he was well versed in the history of figures such as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, Duncan insisted he was passionate about Scotland and would “fight against anyone else who tries to tear down what Scotland represents”.
Following an interval for refreshments it was time for contributions from the floor. Constitutional campaigner Stuart Hill, who believes Shetland does not legally belong to Scotland, questioned the independence debate’s relevance to the islands.
Self-confessed “recovering lawyer” Carmichael said questions of title did not come into it: “customary law” dictated that Shetland was part of Scotland. “It’s one of those things that is because it is accepted.”
Local architect Iain Malcolmson said he had never been an SNP voter but would vote yes in September.
Half his family are Geordies, and on a recent trip south for his grandmother’s 90th birthday he had asked for their views. “Are you bloody stupid?” came the response. “Of course you should vote yes.”
Malcolmson said his relatives “would kill to have the opportunity that we have now”.
Businessman Jimmy Smith was less sure. “I’m confused,” he said. Highlighting conflicting claims from both camps on Europe and the currency, he wanted facts and figures before deciding.
“I know what we have,” Smith said. “I don’t entirely like it, but I haven’t got a clue what we’re getting.”
Addressing Carmichael’s point that the Nordic social model required higher taxes, another audience member pointed out that “no major parties in Westminster” were offering such a policy platform.
The MP responded by saying there was a “fundamental dishonesty” at the heart of the SNP’s white paper: “What you are being offered is an opportunity for higher social service provision while cutting taxes – that is just not going to happen.”
Skene talked of a “race to the bottom” on taxation. He won some of the warmest applause of the evening for saying he regarded paying tax as “my contribution to a community”.
“I do think that in Scotland there is the public will to face the tax rates which would bring about a fairer and more equitable country in which poverty became something of history.”
Turning to international affairs, Mackenzie said Scots would feel “a lot safer” living in a country that doesn’t “go poking your nose into other people’s business, starting illegal wars in places like Iraq” and “attempting to boss and bully other countries”.
Summing up the case for a no vote, Carmichael insisted offers of further devolution from pro-Unionist parties were credible and said it was vital that the Scottish Parliament be given “much greater control” over how its spending budget is raised.
He accused the yes camp of wanting to “keep the things you value and like” about the UK while walking away from the rest: “That is a dishonest proposition, and that is what you should refuse”.
Mackenzie’s final contribution focused on how many of the post war Labour government’s sterling achievements had been diluted by damaging privatisations since the 1980s.
His opponents had failed to outline a positive case for the union and he urged people to “reject the scaremongering, reject the bogeymen, reject that negativity and vote yes for a better future for Scotland”.
After a show of hands revealed that Mackenzie and Skene had succeeded in widening the gap between yes and no from a single vote to 22, debate chairman Irvine Tait drew proceedings, and this winter’s Althing season, to a conclusion.
Follow the debate on our special referendum pages at www.shetnews.co.uk/features/scottish-independence-debate/