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Viewpoint / Autonomy debate returns to Shetland

Ahead of Wednesday’s council meeting, modern political history PhD student Mathew Nicolson argues that the latest bid for self-determination reflects grievances with centralisation and the continued erosion of local government powers rather than the desire for full autonomy.

LAST week’s announcement that nine councillors intend to present a motion calling for Shetland Islands Council to begin “exploring options for achieving financial and political self-determination” came as something of a surprise outside the council chamber.

Mathew Nicolson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

Gaining political autonomy for Shetland has not been high on the agenda in recent years, nor has it featured prominently in recent elections. Rather than responding to a growth in popular support for autonomy, this motion, which is backed by the council leadership, has instead provided the catalyst for such discussions.

However, the idea of Shetland autonomy is not new. As far back as the nineteenth century, an organisation called the Udal League briefly existed which campaigned for a return to Old Norse styles of government and ‘home rule’ for Shetland and Orkney.

More recently, the idea of autonomy saw a resurgence in the 1960s. Shetlanders looked enviously at the prosperity and growing population of Faroe at a time when Shetland had neither and wondered how to replicate this. The then Zetland County Council made a formal visit to Faroe in 1962, concluding that the islands’ autonomy from Denmark was responsible for their success.

Political developments at this time also had an impact. Shetland was stripped of local control over water and police services in the late 1960s and narrowly avoided its local government being incorporated into a massive Highlands Regional Council. Campaigns against these mergers often played with the idea of political independence as a solution to centralisation, although generally not in a serious way at this point.

Later, during the first referendum on Europe in 1975, Shetland rejected membership but was nevertheless forced to remain in the European Economic Community – while watching Faroe opt out from Denmark’s membership. Then, in 1979, fearing a threat to its hard-won oil arrangements, Shetland voted heavily against the creation of a Scottish Assembly.

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This latter debate saw the SIC take on the idea of autonomy by commissioning a hefty, 200-page report exploring Shetland’s constitutional options if a Scottish Assembly were to be created, including the possibility of becoming a fully independent state. Most of these options were rejected and the council pursued a more moderate policy but it is noteworthy that Shetland’s political leaders chose to use the threat of autonomy to advance their political objectives.

For many Shetlanders, these debates crystallised the need for greater local control over Shetland’s affairs. The Shetland Movement emerged directly out of these debates in 1979 to campaign for Shetland to gain formal autonomy along the lines of Faroe or the Isle of Man.  Buoyed by the oil revenues flowing through Shetland, the movement produced a range of ambitious policy proposals for an autonomous Shetland and went as far as drafting a constitution and estimated budget for a Shetland Assembly, which it would name the Althing.

It is difficult to assess how much popular support autonomy had at this time.  The Shetland Movement at one point reached over 800 members, dwarfing the memberships of the more established mainland-based parties, and successfully elected a handful of councillors in the 1980s and 1990s.

Impressive though this was, there is no evidence that a majority of Shetlanders subscribed to its vision for autonomy and the movement gained several critics. It would slowly dissolve in the 1990s as interest and enthusiasm petered out.

What are driving calls for autonomy this time around? 

As in these earlier examples, constitutional debate in the rest of Britain has played its part in driving the idea of political change in Shetland. Amid the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the SIC – alongside its counterparts in Orkney and the Western Isles – seized the opportunity to present its own case for change via the Our Islands Our Future campaign. This was not a campaign for full, Faroe-style autonomy but it did call for a renewed focus on how the islands were governed and suggested some possible powers, especially financial, which could be devolved to the islands.

This campaign met a receptive Scottish Government, which likely realised it could not be seen to oppose more powers for the islands while seeking independence for Scotland.

As a result, the Islands Act 2018 introduced ‘island-proofing’ for new legislation, mandated the development of a national islands plan and devolved some powers over activities around island coastlines. The Act was welcomed by the SIC at the time but has since become a source of disappointment for councillors, many of whom feel it has made no tangible difference to Shetland.

The Scottish independence referendum also fuelled the creation in 2015 of another campaign group for autonomy, Wir Shetland. During its short existence, Wir Shetland counted a handful of councillors among its ranks and appeared to take on the mantle of autonomy from the Shetland Movement, if in a decidedly more right wing and British unionist direction. Within a year it had begun to disintegrate amid internal disputes before it could have much impact, but its existence demonstrated some continued interest in the idea of autonomy.

The current motion before the council does not appear to be driven by constitutional arguments in quite the same way. Rather than present a case for autonomy at this stage, the motion states “we have seen more and more decision making being centralised and public funding being reduced” and that undefined “alternatives” must be looked into.

The phrase ‘self-determination’ allows for an open-ended interpretation, falling short of a commitment to full political autonomy. Shetland’s inability to develop its own policy in response to Covid-19 must also be a factor, although this point has not been emphasised by the motion’s supporters.

In this sense, if the motion passes it will build upon the council’s existing policy of exploring new arrangements to meet the islands’ current needs, as expressed through the Our Islands Our Future campaign, rather than follow in the footsteps of the Shetland Movement or Wir Shetland by demanding full autonomy.

Indeed, while the SIC may have particular grievances around issues such as fair ferry funding, its complaints about centralisation and cuts to public funding are shared by local authorities across Scotland. But unlike these other local authorities, Shetland’s distinct identity and geographic position allows this discontent to be expressed through a desire for special political autonomy in a way that would not be as tenable in, say, Glasgow or Aberdeenshire.

Without doubting the sincerity of the individual councillors who have backed the motion, the council’s moves might be better understood as a rhetorical tool to gain financial and political concessions from the Scottish Government, in the tradition of similar attempts by previous councils.

That is not to say the council would be unwilling to follow through with a campaign to achieve ‘self-determination’ if such concessions are not forthcoming, but that is not where we seem to be at this moment.

If the motion passes on Wednesday, as is expected, the council will face the challenge of persuading both the British and Scottish governments of the need for more local decision-making.

More importantly, the council will also have to make this case to the Shetland people and convince a majority that it is capable of taking on new powers. Regardless of how this pans out, questions around Shetland’s relationship with the rest of Scotland and Britain look set to continue for some time to come.

Mathew Nicolson is writing a PhD thesis on the modern political history of Scotland’s island groups at the University of Edinburgh. He spends his time between Edinburgh and Shetland.

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