FORMER Labour trade and energy minister Brian Wilson used a visit to Shetland yesterday to urge islanders to vote No in the independence referendum.
Wilson, who has retired from politics but now works as a business ambassador for the UK, appeared at a public event with local MSP Tavish Scott at Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday night.
After visiting two of the isles’ biggest firms, Shetland Catch and Ocean Kinetics, Wilson told Shetland News he sensed that “if everywhere in Scotland is like Shetland, it would be a good result” for Better Together.
The chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides said a huge proportion of trade from Scotland’s islands, whether it was tweed or seafood, went through England.
“International borders create costs and bureacracy whether you’re selling tweed or livestock or fish,” Wilson said. “If you don’t know what currency you’re using, or the terms, then the risks are enormous.
“I think Shetland is doing pretty well [economically], and is well placed to see the threat posed by massive economic disruption, and I also think that places on the periphery are very aware that nationalism is about drawing power to the centre, and away from places like this.”
A YouGov poll this week showed an increase in support for a Yes vote, with the gap having narrowed to just six points in recent weeks.
Wilson reckons the outcome on 18 September will “probably” still be a No vote, but “when you only have two options on the ballot paper, anything can happen”.
Echoing criticisms regularly voiced by Scott, Wilson said the SNP Government had centralised police and fire services. He also claimed it had taken control away from local authorities and reduced both the power and budget of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
On a visit to Shetland last week, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that in the case of the police service, “very severe budget cuts” had forced the SNP to save money in backroom services to safeguard spending on frontline policing.
Having opposed devolution in the 1970s, as a minister in Tony Blair’s government Wilson backed the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s – and says he would also support devolving further powers to Edinburgh.
“I’m totally in favour of devolving decision making to the lowest relevant level,” he said, “but that’s not what [devolution] is doing now and it certainly isn’t what independence would lead to.”
Wilson said the main three parties at Westminster had a good track record in pushing through constitutional change, and he has “no doubt” they would deliver “exactly what they’re promising now”.
“Probably the most radical of the three, strangely enough, is the Tories,” he said, “who have accepted the case for both tax and welfare powers. What the SNP do is up to them, because their history is of boycotting these things, but even if there was a big majority I think that the three parties should honour their word, and I believe that they would”.
Oil has been a bone of contention during the campaign, with the Scottish Government accusing Westminster of underestimating the amount of remaining reserves and the UK Government claiming the SNP is overplaying it.
A report published on Thursday, following Shetland News’ interview with Wilson, suggests there could be as much as £1 trillion-worth of oil and gas left in Scotland’s waters, much more than previously envisaged.
Wilson said he hoped the industry had a “very bright and long lasting” future: “If it’s underestimated in either the short or longer term, then that’s great because there would be more jobs, more revenues, more public services,” he said.
“But you don’t gamble an entire economy on the hope that the best case scenario will prevail – that should be a bonus, not the way of paying for schools and hospitals.”
Many in the Yes campaign believe an independent Scotland is the best hope of creating a fairer, more compassionate society.
But Wilson insists that “what you’d end up with are two right wing governments – a centre right government in Edinburgh and a more right wing government in Westminster”, with the latter “setting your interest rates and your public spending parameters”.
Scott, who welcomed Wilson to the islands, said he believed a No vote would be best for isles businesses.
“In addition, 85 per cent of products that are caught or produced in Shetland end up in our biggest market, which is England and Wales, and I don’t want to see any barrier to that continuing.”
But SNP Highlands and Islands list MSP Mike Mackenzie said he was “absolutely certain that the posturing we’re seeing over currency and so on will disappear as soon as there’s a Yes vote”.
“I think it’ll be business as normal, and I’m reminded of prior to the campaign for devolution and for the Scottish Parliament, certain big businesses were fear-mongering about that,” Mackenzie said.
“None of these fears were realised: we woke up the next day, the water still came out of the taps, electricity still came on, people still went to work and came back. I think we’ll look back at some of the scaremongering in the not too distant future and realise it was just that – scaremongering.”
Mackenzie said he had spent a “very successful” few days campaigning in the Northern Isles with Sturgeon, and welcomed the level of support locally for a Yes vote.
“After holding two well attended public meetings and a young voters event to answer questions on the referendum, people are truly engaged with the referendum and support for Yes is buoyant as people engage with the campaign,” he said.
“Momentum is building rapidly. The evening question and answer session at the Shetland Museum was packed to the gunnels and at the lunchtime event extra tables had to be rolled out to accommodate people. Shetland really seems to be waking up to the possibility of a Yes vote on the 18th.”
Mackenzie added he felt the SNP’s ‘Empower Scotland’s Island Communities’ prospectus could be a “game changer for the islands, promising new scope for community benefit from the renaissance in the oil industry as well as 100 per cent devolution of Crown Estate revenues”.
“As offshore renewables develop this will provide a significant and sustainable income stream for our island and coastal communities,” he said. “Only with a Yes vote can we fully deliver these benefits.”
- Meanwhile SNP Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil is to speak at a public meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, organised by Yes Shetland, on Friday evening at 7.30pm.