DAVID Cameron touched down at Sumburgh Airport for a short visit to the islands this afternoon – becoming the first serving Prime Minister to do so since Margaret Thatcher 34 years ago.
His stopover is only the second ever visit of a serving UK Prime Minister to Shetland. Thatcher showed up in September 1980, shortly after the Sullom Voe terminal became operational, while Ted Heath also visited but not during his term of office.
With less than two months until Scotland votes in September’s independence referendum, Cameron chose an apposite moment to visit a community which – thanks largely to its energy and fishing industries – is a net contributor to the UK exchequer.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond recently made a big play of the Kirkwall launch of the SNP’s prospectus offering more powers, including access to revenue from the seabed, to Scotland’s islands.
A counter offer to what is on the table from the Holyrood is expected from Westminster in the coming weeks; all that was forthcoming today was a fairly low key pledge to maintain a subsidy for electricity consumers in the Northern Isles.
Wednesday will see a meeting with local fishing industry leaders, followed by a tour of Total’s under-construction £1 billion Shetland Gas Plant which, once completed, will play a significant role in supplying energy to the rest of the country.
On Tuesday afternoon the Prime Minister met some of the crew at Bristow Helicopters’ search and rescue HQ, before being whisked off to the recently opened new Sumburgh Lighthouse complex. Mr Cameron later described it as “fabulously restored”.
The visit had been kept hush-hush: local MP Alistair Carmichael noted that, in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, this had been “the closest to a secret I’ve known in Shetland”.
Rumours had been circulating in recent days about the visit, but it was only officially confirmed after two days of firm denials shortly before Cameron’s arrival – much to the infuriation of national media organisations, several of whom were unable to reach Shetland at such short notice.
This evening Cameron addressed a civic reception at Lerwick Town Hall, hosted in convener Malcolm Bell’s absence by Shetland Islands Council’s deputy convener Cecil Smith.
In a short speech to around 100 politicians and industry leaders, Mr Cameron joked that – having watched the BBC’s “Shetland” murder mystery series – he travelled to the islands with “some trepidation”.
He thanked Shetland for its “immense contribution” to the UK economy, saying it “punches well above its weight”.
Mr Cameron said that a visit to a radar hut at Sumburgh used in the fight against fascism in the Second World War was a reminder of what the UK could achieve through “shared endeavour”.
He said: “Indeed when Hitler launched his attempt to destroy the Royal Navy, it was that hut on the peninsula just below the lighthouse where the early radar system cranked into action and discovered those German bombers, and a barrage was put up so they couldn’t complete their dreadful work.”
Mr Cameron said he viewed Shetlanders’ ability to have three separate identities – as islanders, Scots and Brits – as “an incredible source of strength”.
UK taxpayers’ support for energy consumers here was “a small example” of how the country’s “broad shoulders” could be an advantage “in every part of the United Kingdom”.
“I think fundamentally the arguments about staying together are really quite simple,” Cameron said. “About being in a difficult, dangerous and competitive world, and recognising that sharing what we have across these islands makes us stronger, makes us safer, makes us more prosperous and it means that we can support each other.”
Yes Shetland chairman Brian Nugent, however, wanted to know whether the Prime Minister was “here to defend the bedroom tax, food bank Britain and the austerity measures that he is punishing the poor with for a recession not of their making”.
Maurice Mullay of the Conservatives’ local branch said he was “delighted” and “honoured” to be able to welcome only the second serving Prime Minister ever to have visited Shetland.
“I was down and spoke to him in Downing Street just over 18 months ago and invited him to come to Shetland,” Mullay said, “and I’m absolutely delighted that he’s taken up the invitation to come and see us. It shows that Conservatives keep their promises.”
However he is unlikely to be greeted by a great deal of wider affection for the Tories during his visit. Shetland has been a Liberal Democrat stronghold since the 1950s, and the Conservatives’ 2011 Scottish election candidate, Sandy Cross, won so few votes (330) that he lost his deposit.
Cameron’s cabinet colleague Carmichael said that, ahead of the referendum, it was important for the Prime Minister to know the whole of the UK.
“Shetland may geographically be peripheral but economically we are absolutely central to the energy security of this country,” Carmichael said.
Others were less enamoured with the visit: independent councillor Jonathan Wills, once a flatmate of Gordon Brown and now campaigning for a Yes vote, gave the reception a miss and suggested the secrecy surrounding the visit was due to the fear of demonstrations about the UK’s refusal to condemn Israel’s “state terrorism” in Gaza.
“I think the British record on Palestine is deplorable and he should be in London making sure the Israeli ambassador understands they’ve got to stop this rather than joyriding and doing public relations up here,” Wills said.