SHETLAND’S Conservative party hopeful at next year’s Holyrood elections has dismissed incumbent MSP Tavish Scott’s attempt to frame the local contest as a two-way joust between himself and the SNP.
Speaking on a visit to Shetland on Wednesday, Cameron Smith said Scott was preparing for “a very different election than Tavish will have faced in the past”.
His Liberal Democrat colleague Alistair Carmichael kept hold of the northern isles seat in May on a much-reduced majority, and the SNP have picked Carmichael’s rival Danus Skene to challenge Scott too.
Earlier this week Scott distributed a newspaper-style campaign leaflet Shetland Gazette to local households.
It highlighted that both the Conservatives and Labour polled below 10 per cent in the Westminster election earlier this year.
But 28 year old Smith, from Sandwick, said most of Scott and Carmichael’s leaflets – and those in “probably every constituency in Scotland” – contained a “famous bar chart that has the Lib Dems as the only challengers”.
He said people shouldn’t read too much into the claims and claimed there was positive momentum behind the Scottish Tories under leader Ruth Davidson.
“There’s a Labour party that’s really struggling to find its identity and Liberal Democrats across the UK that have had real tough times on an electoral basis, so I think if you’re looking for the unionist party that’s standing up strongest, you’ve got to look at the Conservatives,” Smith said.
But even Smith’s own family are not of a blue hue: father George Smith, an SIC councillor, is a big Labour man – while his sister Kirsty Smith works as a parliamentary assistant to the party’s latest Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale.
Has that led to some heated dinner table discussions? “No, not at all. We don’t talk about politics,” he laughed.
Now working as a policy adviser to the European Conservatives and Reformists group in Brussels, he says having an MSP who “knows the machinery of Brussels” would be to Shetland’s advantage – particularly for the key fishing and agriculture industries.
He said SNP fisheries minister Richard Lochhead had not fought the Scottish fleet’s corner properly during talks on implementing the new discards ban – particularly its impact on mixed fisheries.
Unlike some in his party, Smith favours the UK remaining part of the EU but “not at all costs”.
He said the Conservatives had “changed the mindset in Brussels on trying to be more competitive, more evidence-based on how it treats policies” and he hopes it can be reformed to work more in Britain’s interests.
“If we have an EU that’s sensible and doesn’t try to micromanage, I think that’s one the industries would have more sympathy with.”
And what of the constitutional changes being floated by the newly-formed Wir Shetland group?
While the local party welcomed some of its broader aims, Smith says the notion of Shetland becoming a British overseas territory would be a step too far.
He said the Conservatives shared a passion for gaining more local decision-making powers, a “localism approach that is also a strong part of the Our Islands, Our Future project from the islands councils”.
“I think there are some things that we can definitely move and try to do better at a local level rather than a centralised position.
“But some things it doesn’t make much sense to do locally. Wir Shetland has spoken about various constitutional changes – that’s maybe one that’s better left alone.”
Since winning a surprise majority in May, the Conservatives have faced stern criticism on various fronts nationally.
Hundreds of families in Shetland who rely on working tax credits to top up their low pay face losing a substantial amount of income due to controversial reforms – with chancellor George Osborne only agreeing to revisit the changes following an intervention by the House of Lords.
Smith said he was “not sure the intervention by the Lords was necessary”, as he expects this month’s autumn statement to include “some consideration of how the various proposals of the government work together”.
Charities and welfare organisations have protested that tax credit cuts will sting families long before new measures such as a higher minimum wage are brought in.
Smith said he agreed with many other Conservatives that it would be “sensible” to “address any mismatch between the provisions” while “at the same time recognising that we need to bring the welfare bill under control as we try to make the books balance and move towards a budget surplus”.
Others contend that the government is letting down refugees from Syria and the wider Middle East by agreeing only to accommodate 20,000 people over five years from existing refugee camps in Europe.
But Smith defends David Cameron’s government. He says it is wrong to “encourage those who make a very difficult, and actually expensive in terms of who they’re paying – traffickers, effectively – to come across the Mediterranean into Europe”.
He said resettling people from UN-operated camps was “in many ways a more humane plan to deal with what’s a terrible crisis in the area”.
Closer to home, Smith agreed with those who say BP and other oil industry firms need to make a better job of communicating with the Shetland public.
“We’ve seen a few reports about these important decisions that have huge knock-on impact on the community being taken without really a great deal of knowledge on the council’s side. That’s been a failing on the industry’s side and one they should address quickly.”
He also backs calls for industry to look at building houses, which could then be reused to provide affordable housing, instead of hotels to accommodate oil industry workers.
Smith said the Tories favoured expanding a Scottish government scheme to help public organisations to build more houses and “allow private providers to benefit from that fund”.
If the oil industry was able to access such funding, something the Scottish government has “shied away from”, he added, it might be a way of persuading them to build houses not hotels.
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