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Scottish Independence Debate / Opinion: a shift in strategy from the past

Professor James Mitchell

Professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, James Mitchell, argues that the Our Islands, Our Future has been very successful in playing one government off against the other.

While the attention of much of the media and political activists has been on twitter, opinion polls and the daily round of claim and counter-claim of the referendum, another very different set of debates has been occurring across much of Scotland.

These debates have not focused on the formal question posed on 18 September but a wider range of questions.

This has been as much part of Scotland’s constitutional moment as the publication of the Scottish Government’s white paper and the UK Government’s various outputs on the implications of independence.

There have been three key features to these other debates within the constitutional moment. These debates are not controlled by Yes Scotland or Better Together nor the two governments that signed the Edinburgh Agreement.

They are not defined in strictly constitutional terms but rather about the kind of Scotland people want and they are often quite consensual and very constructive. In some cases, entrepreneurial leadership has taken advantage of the constitutional moment to insinuate a particular interest or issue into public debate.

One of the notable examples has been the joint initiative of Scotland’s three island local authorities: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Shetland Islands Council, and Orkney Islands Council.

The Our Islands Our Future initiative was launched in June 2013 with the aim of empowering the three island communities.

The initiative issued what amounted to a list of demands to both UK and Scottish Governments while its leaders avoided taking sides in the core constitutional question but have essentially played one side off against the other.

This is a shift in strategy from the past. In the 1970s, Shetland Islands Council played an active and hostile part in debates on devolution. That past has been an unspoken part of the backdrop to this round of constitutional debate ensuring that the islands know they will be listened to by those engaged in the primary constitutional debate.

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The Scottish Government moved faster than the UK Government and established an Island Areas Ministerial Working Group under Local Government and Planning Minister Derek Mackay in July last year.

The group consisted of the leaders and chief executives of the three Island authorities, Mr Mackay and Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, with additional attendance at some of its six meetings.

Its report, Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities sets out a series of commitments, some of which will require independence or a similar commitment from UK Government given they involve matters currently retained at Westminster.

The key proposals include:

  • allocating 100 per cent of the net income from the islands’ sea bed leasing revenues to island communities which currently go to central government;
  • to place a duty on Scottish Government and other public bodies to ‘island proof’ decision-making to ensure that policies take account of island distinctiveness
  • appointment of a Minister for Island Communities
  • extend the duration of existing Enterprise areas in each if the Island authorities and establish Innovation zones
  • give islands representation on a new strategic energy committee and explore means of mitigating the adverse impact of oil and gas exploration on local communities
  • develop planning briefs and regulatory frameworks to encourage the development of aquaculture
  • the islands will nominate one of Scotland’s members of the EU Committee of the Regions, subject to agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, creating opportunities for island participation in delegations to the Council of the EU where appropriate and the appointment of someone responsible for the interest of islands within Scottish representation to the EU.

Scotland has 93 inhabited islands and not all are in these three island council areas. Representatives of other islands were concerned that the interests of only the three authorities were being addressed in this initiative. But many of the commitments made by the Scottish Government will apply to other islands in Scotland.

Much of the discussion within the document is set within existing commitments and policies including a commitment to entrenching the constitutional position of local government as well as energy, environmental and economic policies.

The matter that is likely to attract most attention is the commitment to devolve the Crown Estate’s seabed income to the islands. The Crown Estate has been the subject of much criticism including a House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report two years ago.

That report argued for the decentralisation of the Crown Estate Commissioner’s marine and ancient rights and responsibilities in Scotland but insisted that this should be devolved to local government rather than the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Government’s commitment along side the Scottish Affairs Committee report will place the UK Government under pressure to follow the commitment to hand over the Crown Estate income to the islands.

This might open up the opportunity to use this precedent to open up wider debates on the Crown Estate though the tendency towards a silo approach to constitutional debate may prove a major impediment for any policy entrepreneurs.

The extent to which these Scottish Government commitments amount to substantial changes was evident in the responses from the two Liberal Democrat MSPs representing Orkney and Shetland.

Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur accused the Scottish Government of offering the islands a ‘referendum bribe’. The question now is whether they can convince Alistair Carmichael, their Liberal Democrat colleague who is both MP for Orkney and Shetland as well as Secretary of State for Scotland, to concede something similar.

Whatever happens, Our Islands Our Future looks set to be one of the most successful campaign initiatives in this round of Scotland’s constitutional moment.

This article was first published on The Future of the UK and Scotland website on 18 June.


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