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Althing: Now is not the time for autonomy

Duncan Simpson of Wir Shetland spoke in favour of the motion at Saturday's Althing debate - Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

WIR Shetland, the political pressure group advocating autonomy for Shetland, had to accept defeat at an event held by the Althing debating society at the Staney Hill Hall in Lerwick on Saturday night.

Following an entertaining two-hour long debate just one of the 31-strong audience was in favour of the motion that “the time is right for Shetland autonomy”.

However, when main speaker for the motion and Wir Shetland chairman James Titcomb rephrased the question and asked the audience its view as to whether “we should start investigating autonomy now”, around half of the those present raised their hands.

Ahead of the debate, chaired by Chris Bunyan, four people indicated their belief that the time was right now while eight raised their hands in opposition to the motion. 18 were undecided.

Titcomb got the debate under way by saying that change was “happening everywhere” right now. Brexit posed “great risks”, but with it also come “huge opportunities”.

He said in his view it would be easier to get Westminster to grant Shetland autonomy than dealing with the Holyrood.

Autonomy would allow Shetland to:

  • control and grow its fisheries and associated industries;
  • support the agriculture industry;
  • attract immigration to grow the local economy;
  • return accountability to the political process.

Opposing the motion, retiring councillor Jonathan Wills said Shetland was too small and too vulnerable to be fully autonomous and added that as a Scottish local authority it already enjoyed “a remarkable degree of autonomy”.

In addition, he said, the 1974 Zetland County Council act offered further powers no other local authority had, and the incoming Islands Bill demonstrated that the islands were taken seriously by politicians in Edinburgh.

And while the block grant – Holyrood’s payment to Shetland Islands Council – has been reduced by 20 per cent to about £80 million over the last five years, Shetland was still receiving significantly more in grant per head of population than other local authorities because of its remote location (£3,456 per head of population; 96 per cent more than the Scottish average of £1,763).

If we were independent, who would pay that £80 million, who would pay for the NHS, for the NorthLink subsidy, for the Air Discount Scheme, he asked.

Second speaker for the motion, North Isles council candidate Duncan Simpson, said Wir Shetland wanted to become a British Overseas Territory, which would enable the isles to form its own government and claim to a 200 miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

He said that with an estimated GDP of £1.1 billion Shetland could easily be financially viable, as it would retain all taxes “we currently pay”, including income tax, VAT, inheritance tax and 24 other taxes.

He said the group was working on producing detailed breakdowns of all these taxes and had so far managed to obtain up-to-date figures for income tax (£60 million), capital gains tax (£1.3 million), corporation tax (£18.3 million), council tax (£9 million) and business rates (£17 million).

“We are not talking about going fully independent straight away. All that is holding us back is a lack of ambition,” he said.

Final speaker of the night, Kevin Learmonth, said he was open to persuasion as, in general, he very much supported the idea of self-determination.

But, considering the motion, he felt that Shetland was not ready for autonomy “just now”.

He said that Wir Shetland was “perhaps the start of something” but felt that the group “tried to run before they could walk”. And becoming a British Overseas Territory did sound like “a new name for the old empire”, he said.

“Imagine a Shetland government tomorrow? We will get the same people we have now. Do you feel comfortable with that?” he asked, and concluded: “This might be the right time to think about autonomy, it is not the right time for autonomy.”

Following the tea break the audience had their say. Most people expressed reservations as to the process of achieving autonomy. Do you take it or is it granted? Why should Westminster grant Shetland autonomy? And would it not be right to first find out what the Shetland population wants?

Council leader and Shetland West council candidate Gary Robinson said he had contributed to the “Orkney study” commissioned by Orkney Islands Council to research its governance options.

Quoting two examples, Robinson said the Finnish Aland Islands had been given special status by the League of Nations following the First World War, while Faroe became autonomous after the British left at the end of the Second World War. 

Despite being larger than Shetland and having a strong fishing industry Faroe was still supported by Denmark to the tune of around £60 million a year.

He added that in his view there was no incentive for anyone – Westminster or Holyrood – “to give us autonomy”.

Titcomb responded by saying that the group would like to see a similar feasibility study into Shetland autonomy commissioned and he hoped the new council would do just that.

Learmonth pointed out that the recent decision by Shetland Charitable Trust to reduce the accountability of its trustees demonstrated the “lack of maturity of democracy” in Shetland. “Our civil society is not mature enough, we are not there yet,” he said.

And even independence campaigner Stuart Hill, who at the start had voted in favour of the motion, said that he had changed his mind as a result of the discussion and now agreed “the time is not right”.

Summing up, Wills said becoming a British overseas territory did not sound like autonomy to him but more like “being a colony”.

He described autonomy as “a fantasy” and added: “We are a county of Scotland and we are doing rather well as a county of Scotland. The Our Islands Our Future process is getting us somewhere.”

Titcomb described autonomy as a process which had to be started somewhere.

“We believe Shetland’s economy and its talent allows us to stay on our own feet, and I think we should start that process,” he said.

When Chris Bunyan took the vote at the end of the evening one member of the audience was in favour of the motion, 24 voted against and six abstained.

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