FOLLOWING Tavish Scott’s resignation in 2019, his Liberal Democrat successor Beatrice Wishart was always going to have a slightly unusual introduction to parliamentary life – taking up her seat at Holyrood with little over 18 months of the term remaining.
Having served as an SIC councillor and spent many years running the Lerwick constituency office shared by Scott and Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, the then 64-year-old had arguably enjoyed greater preparation for the role than many first-time MSPs.
But no amount of groundwork could have readied anyone for the havoc Covid-19 was about to wreak.
“The first few months you do feel like you’re the new person starting in the middle of a term,” she says, but just as she was beginning to get her feet under the table and “establishing relationships with people across parties… then the pandemic hit, so that changed everything.”
It makes any self-evaluation of her stint as Shetland’s MSP to date “kind of difficult”. But Wishart believes she has “been able to do some good work [particularly] in terms of the cross-party group on mental health – that’s one example where we’ve been able to do a lot of good work together. And I think that’s what people don’t see, cross-party working within the groups and in the committees.”
After Wishart won nearly half the votes in a 10-strong field in the August 2019 by-election it would be a huge upset if the SNP’s Tom Wills were to overturn a 15-point gap and end the Lib Dems’ supremacy.
There is certainly no sign of complacency, however. Like her opponents, in the absence of canvassing she has focused on phone calls, virtual meetings and greater use of social media.
Does she feel there will be an income on the electoral outcome? “It’s hard to tell, and voters will tell me on 6 May if we haven’t got the message across.”
The view that the SNP is prone to excessive centralisation and too often ignores the bespoke needs of island communities is firmly entrenched in Shetland’s political conversation, and it is a theme that Liberal Democrat politicians repeatedly return to.
Shetland Islands Council approved a motion last September to explore options for achieving “financial and political self-determination”. Contrary to national tabloid caricatures this was not some clarion call for Shetland independence.
Wishart says it is “about looking at all options” and she thinks there is a case for those on the ground to have a bit more understanding of what’s happening rather than a centralised approach”.
During the pandemic it has “felt at times as if we’ve been an afterthought”. Our interview takes place on the morning of the day a government announcement is finally forthcoming to confirm what Covid-19 restrictions will apply in Shetland from 26 April.
While clear that Shetland cannot be cut off from the rest of Scotland, Wishart says it is hard to fathom what caused such a lengthy delay following a consultation that concluded on 26 March.
She points to confusion at Christmas where islanders could have been breaching the rules in travelling across the country to visit family due to the constraints of travel timetables. After she raised it at the parliament’s Covid committee, the policy was adjusted but “the point is it hadn’t been thought about”.
Please read our other candidate profiles here:
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29 April – Independence not top of his priorities due to Covid recovery, says SNP candidate Wills
25 April – Labour offers a’genuine and fair recovery for all’, election candidate Kerr says
22 April – ‘We need to stop being backward looking’, Conservative candidate Nick Tulloch insists
15 April – Nugent hopeful party’s ‘unique selling point’ will resonate with voters
“Certainly more communication, more consultation with the council, for example, would have ironed out things like that,” Wishart says.
With the NHS’s vaccine rollout proceeding excellently both locally and nationally, attention is turning towards getting the economy back on its feet. She is clear support such as business rates relief in areas such as tourism and hospitality must be maintained.
“You want to make sure they’re able to get through enough of a season or enough business to stand on their own two feet again. [The support] has been massive to keep businesses going so they’d be here at the other side of it.”
In addition to rebuilding hospitality and tourism, there are “great prospects” in renewables but while “there’s a lot happening, we can’t be complacent about it – you only have to look at how quiet the harbour has been and the impact that has on the Shetland economy.”
There are those who wonder whether a constituency MSP inside government – and no one seriously doubts that the SNP will lead the next administration – might offer a more effective means of extracting policy concessions for the islands.
Needless to say, it is not a view Wishart subscribes to: “I think Liberal Democrats generally punch above their weight. We’ve been able to achieve quite a lot. It seems to me that the SNP has had 14 years to do things for Shetland, and the opportunities have been there.”
She cites HIAL (Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd) and its much-criticised project to remove air traffic control from Shetland and run the service remotely from Inverness.
“It just seems that we have been rollercoaster-ed into this centralisation project without taking into account what people here in Shetland think about it,” Wishart says.
“To get 1,200 signatures [on a petition against the plans] pretty quickly indicates the level of concern in the community. I shall keep fighting for what I think people are telling me is a damaging project. I shall keep making the case if I’m re-elected.”
Brexit was the topic for Wishart’s maiden parliamentary speech in September 2019, and now it has become a reality she emphasises the importance of ensuring “teething problems… don’t become permanent problems”.
She is satisfied some paperwork and logistical issues encountered at the end of the transition period in January have been resolved. Yet concerns remain, not least in the seafood sector.
“We need to be able to export and make sure the great produce we have does reach the markets, but there’s no question we’ve lost markets in Europe. A restaurant in Paris used to getting shellfish from Shetland can just as easily turn to Norway.”
Wishart also wants to see “more detail” on what alternatives will be installed to replace previous funding pots such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and LEADER, especially given Shetland has had a “phenomenal amount of money out of the EU’.
She is “very saddened” by the damage to Holyrood’s standing caused by the “quite sordid, disgraceful affair” surrounding Alex Salmond’s behaviour towards women, and the SNP government’s mishandling of an investigation into his conduct.
“What has been forgotten, I think, frequently at the centre of this are the women who made the complaints and… we all need to look at how we move forward after this affair. The reputational damage has been appalling,” Wishart says.
With the overall electoral outcome primarily a question of whether the SNP forms a minority or majority administration, the matter of Scotland’s constitutional future is never far away from the headlines.
For Wishart a second indyref would be an unwanted distraction. Independence is not “in the forefront of anybody’s minds at the moment” and the priority must be putting the Covid recovery first: “A vote for a Liberal Democrat is a vote against independence.”
“With the damage done to the country by the pandemic, the rebuilding won’t take a year or two, and the decisions that we make in the next five years are going to affect generations to come.
“It’s absolutely vital we focus on the things that are important to people like our transport issues, mental health services, making sure NHS services are rebooted and fit for purpose for all our island areas. That is where my focus would be if re-elected.”
She adds: “My message is: we need to come together and put the recovery first.”
The Scottish Parliament elections take place on 6 May. There are six candidates contesting the Shetland seat. They are in alphabetical order: Martin Kerr (Labour), Brian Nugent (Restore Scotland); Peter Tait (Independent), Nick Tulloch (Conservatives), Tom Wills (SNP) and Beatrice Wishart (Liberal Democrats).
To find out more about all of the candidates standing in the election, including those on the regional Highlands and Islands list, visit our Scottish Parliament election 2021 page below.
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