BREXIT and the uncertainty surrounding the impact of the UK leaving the European Union is usually what the Northern Isles candidates point to as the main issues in this year’s general election.
It was a question about Scottish independence, however, that provoked the most heated debate at BBC Radio Shetland’s hustings in Lerwick on Tuesday evening.
An impassioned Alistair Carmichael, who performed strongly, brought big cheers from the audience at the Shetland Museum and Archives when he said the SNP were “daydreaming” about independence – and “taking their eyes off the ball” when it comes to day to day work as a result.
But SNP candidate Miriam Brett also whipped up some whoops and roars as she defended her party’s spending before criticising Carmichael’s voting record on issues like the bedroom tax and military intervention in Syria.
The debate featured a full complement of candidates – except the ever-absent Robert Smith of UKIP – as Carmichael and Brett lined up alongside Labour’s Robina Barton, the Conservatives’ Jamie Halco Johnston and independent Stuart Hill.
Barton chose to promote “values, equalities and expertise” in her opening statement. She said a growing income gap in the UK leads to a number of social problems, while she said her varied job history – which has included working with the homeless, a lorry driver and geology – gives her an insight into real people’s lives.
Chair Daniel Lawson asked if she personally echoed Labour’s manifesto pledge to renew the Trident nuclear programme, but Barton resolutely stated she wants unilateral disarmament.
Brett described the 8 June election as one “like no other” criticising the Conservatives’ direction towards a hard Brexit. “We need a strong voice to challenge an increasingly reckless agenda,” she said.
The policy advisor claimed the SNP has a “consistent record” of opposition in Westminster. “I believe it’s time for a change,” she concluded.
When asked about the delays in her party confirming reduced fares for the NorthLink ferry service, Brett said she would “work hand in hand” with ministers on the issue when the ferry contract comes up for renewal in 2018.
Need for ‘liberal voices’ after Brexit vote
Carmichael described his 16 year tenure as MP as an “enormous privilege” before defending his track record on issues like the emergency towing vessel.
He said the upcoming Brexit uncertainty means it is “more important than ever that we have strong liberal voices”, particularly when it comes to local issues like fishing, crofting and transport.
Lawson asked Carmichael why he predicted the election will be a close call with the SNP if his past record is that good, but the politician said he “never takes any vote for granted”.
Hill, who believes there is no proof that Orkney and Shetland has legitimately ever become part of Scotland, asked the audience to “open your minds” to his controversial views.
The campaigner said he offers the unique possibility of being able to take issues like fishing off the Brexit negotiating table as electing him as MP could trigger independence for the Northern Isles.
When asked by Lawson why he doesn’t want to actually sit as an MP if elected, Hill claimed everyone knows it is “illegal” and said he is “baffled” why his fellow candidates are even here to debate.
Johnston meanwhile used Brexit and the possibility of a second Scottish independence as reasons why people should give him their vote.
When questioned about the Tories saying a ‘no’ vote in the 2014 Scottish referendum would represent the best way for the country to stay in the EU, the Orcadian said there was an element of “revisionism” and that following the Brexit deal, the focus should be on getting the best deal.
The first question from the audience came from Scalloway’s Iris Hughson, who asked what each candidates’ top priority would be for benefiting the local community.
Barton said more recognition of rural communities, Brett offered mitigating the local effects of Brexit and Carmichael said “putting Orkney and Shetland on a national stage”, as well as ring-fencing fishing in EU talks.
Johnston pointed to transport links, and while Hill agreed with his peers, he said he wanted Shetland to wake up on 9 June to find that the land and the seabed is theirs.
Further calls to reduce voting age
Brae High School pupil Freya Balfour, who is too young to vote, asked the candidates for their views on reducing the voting age in line with Scotland, which allows 16 year olds to take part.
Johnston said he believed it should stay at 18 for the time being – but he is not “closed off” to seeing it changed – while Barton said if “you can get married and have a child at 16, I don’t see any reason why you can’t vote”.
Carmichael and Brett, meanwhile, enjoyed a rare moment of agreement as they said the age should be lowered.
Balfour questioned Johnston on his views, who said there is often “barriers” to age, such as how the smoking age increased from 16 to 18.
“I don’t think voting is bad for your health,” Lawson quipped.
Local Tory branch chairman Maurice Mullay asked the candidates if they believed you can be in the EU without being under the much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), with Carmichael vowing to ring-fence fishing in Brexit negotiations.
Lawson asked the Lib Dem why he campaigned to stay in the EU if he thought the CFP was a “mess”, but Carmichael said he believed “meaningful reform” on the policy is near.
Brett said it was the SNP’s longstanding view that the CFP should be “radically reformed or scrapped”, and when asked why she didn’t sign the Scottish Fishing Federation’s ‘Brexit pledge’, she said she had “wider concerns” over how leaving the EU will impact the industry.
But she was attacked by Carmichael for not speaking to the local fishermen’s association before deciding not to sign the pledge, which calls for the restoration of UK waters to be made a priority.
Johnston then turned on Carmichael, who was “pretty inconsistent” for signing the pledge while supporting another public vote on the EU, while Hill said the candidates had no real answers.
Barton said she would “always fight tooth and nail for fishermen”, but she suggested that while the industry is a big part of the economy, it’s “not everything” and prioritising a deal for fishermen shouldn’t necessarily to the detriment of other communities.
Devolve farming and crofting subsidies?
Uncertainty over EU farming subsidies was the next topic raised, with Barton believing there should be “much more ability” to make decisions on the subject locally, while Brett said all matters should be devolved to Holyrood.
Johnston attacked the Scottish Government’s recent failure to pay subsidies on time despite shelling out £178 million on a new IT system to administer payments, while Carmichael decried Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal” – something which was roundly appreciated by the audience.
Hill wasn’t asked for his thoughts due to the BBC’s minor party guidelines, and while this had been talked about in advance, he expressed his frustration at being “cut out”. “This is just not good enough,” he said.
Shetland Lib Dem chairwoman Brenda Wilcock asked if party or constituency would come first, with candidates in agreement that their electorate is the priority.
Hill, however, said he is “in favour of no political parties”, while Carmichael quipped about the SNP’s often-suggested control over its members.
Double standards from the SNP?
The final question was the most divisive, with Geordie Jacobson asking what candidates will do to ensure a second Scottish independence referendum doesn’t take place.
Barton took the chance vociferously call for “proper investment” in Scotland’s economy by the country’s government while at the same time promoting Labour manifesto policies such as a £10 minimum wage and lamenting the SNP’s work in areas like education.
Brett drew applause when she said it is “only right” that an SNP mandate stating that a second referendum can be held if there is a material change in circumstances should be upheld.
Johnston, however, took aim at the SNP by noting that the Scottish Government was reliant on the Green Party to win support in Holyrood to seek permission to hold a second referendum.
Carmichael also went on the offensive against the SNP, slamming the reduction in funding given to Shetland Islands Council and accusing Brett of “blatant double standards” for defending this while decrying cuts elsewhere.
Brett said Shetland receives “double the Scottish average per head” before she in turn took aim at Carmichael’s past record.
“It’s always somebody else’s fault,” Carmichael retorted, before criticising the SNP’s record on issues like schools and the NHS.
Brett said her party were elected with a mandate and that the Greens, who initially said they would secure one million signatures before formally backing a second independence vote, were also voted in by the public.
Carmichael suggested the Green Party had “broken manifesto pledges”, causing some in the audience to cry hypocrisy, perhaps referring to the Lib Dems’ national U-turn on tuition fees five years ago.
Just as things were heating up, the clock signalled the end of the debate, although Hill had the last word as he jokingly thanked the audience for supporting him.
On this showing, it’s clear that the so-called two horse race between Carmichael and Brett is the most likely outcome come 8 June. Who will emerge victorious, though, still remains unclear.
See also our letters page: http://www.shetnews.co.uk/letters/14676-hustings-did-no-credit-to-the-bbc
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