HIGHLANDS and Islands list MSP Jean Urquhart has hailed an “extraordinary” awakening of political interest within Shetland during the independence referendum campaign.
Just shy of 10,000 islanders voted No, compared to nearly 5,700 who said Yes, a result broadly expected in the Liberal Democrat stronghold, on a turnout of more than 84 per cent.
But Urquhart said the 36.3 per cent of Yes voters in Shetland was not massively out of kilter with the 44.7 per cent figure nationwide, and she feels relations between Shetland Islands Council and the SNP Government are improving.
While Shetland has a unique culture, she feels the extent to which it differs from the rest of Scotland is overplayed, as is the extent of “centralisation” of powers to Edinburgh under the SNP since 2007.
That refrain of excessive centralisation levelled at the SNP, it should be noted, is one voiced regularly not only by Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott and MP Alistair Carmichael, but by many SIC politicians too.
However Urquhart said a growing number of islanders were of the view that “the first step towards decentralisation” was to move powers away from London.
“I simply don’t think a column in the weekly paper telling you that Edinburgh is all bad and Westminster is all good is gonna wash – certainly not with the 36 per cent of people that voted Yes – any longer,” she said.
She has also vowed to lobby the SNP Government to ensure the pledges made to islands councils regarding the Our Islands Our Future campaign will be honoured, and says she is “optimistic” that will happen.
Prior to Thursday’s vote, Urquhart – a left-leaning former SNP member who now serves as an independent MSP – had made the assessment that if 40 per cent of Shetland voted Yes that would suggest a nationwide victory.
The campaign itself in Shetland was “extraordinary”, she said, with “people coming out of the woodwork who have suddenly got interest, and the positive youth vote in Shetland has been fantastic”.
The result itself locally was satisfactory and has imbued her with hope for the future.
“We’ve got people now really interested in politics, people joining political parties,” Urquhart said. “I don’t know if there’s an increase in Labour, Liberal and Conservative memberships, but if there is I suspect it won’t be anything like the rate we’ve seen from the campaign that we’ve run.
“The learning curve hasn’t stopped there either. There’s people from Shetland who have come down and taken part in the Yestivals [cultural events organised by the National Collective movement].
“There are many people who were No at the start of the [parliamentary] recess had changed to Yes by the end.
“Should we capitalise on that? Absolutely. I think it would be foolhardy not to, and people worked too hard and spent a lot of time researching to answer folks’ questions, running websites, answering emails; the shop [on Harbour Street] was open from early to late, manned by young folk, old folk, people from different sectors, and I think to stop that stone dead now would just be outrageous.”
There is already talk among Yes Shetland activists of rallying behind a candidate to fight the UK and Scottish parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2016.
Urquhart said: “I do think folk are walking a bit taller – more politically aware, more challenging of politicians, more informed and up for getting involved. If anybody sees the success of the No vote as the end of something then they are mistaken. This is only the start.”