EVEN prior to the SNP’s surge in national popularity over the past decade the impact of Conservative and Labour candidates in Shetland’s electoral contests was fairly marginal.
And the greater the prevalence of Scottish independence as an issue, the stronger the Liberal Democrats’ grasp on the unionist vote has become. In the last three Holyrood elections the Tories have won a paltry, albeit consistent, 3.5 per cent (2011), 3.7 per cent (2016) and 3.6 per cent (the 2019 by-election) of the constituency vote.
It seems clear that most Conservative-inclined voters in the islands have traditionally shunned the sort of pitch current Scottish leader Douglas Ross is making – attempting to station his party as the best vehicle to prevent a second independence referendum.
Perth-based businessman Nick Tulloch, the party’s 2017 UK election candidate in Inverness, has assumed the Shetland candidacy this time around and has “never entered a competition in my life” he did not hope to win.
He insists the focus is on both constituency and list votes and points to his performance four years ago where his predecessor had finished fourth, barely recovering their deposit: “Where I finished was a strong second to the ultimate SNP winner, but we leapfrogged the Lib Dems and Labour. There comes a point where we need to stop being backward looking.”
So what does his candidacy offer to the Shetland that the Liberal Democrats do not? “I would offer a fresh perspective, energy and enthusiasm, a focus on rebuilding economies through creating jobs within the island community.
“We are the only party standing up to the SNP, not just on the union but on other matters. [If people want] a strong voice at Holyrood, they will get that from the Scottish Conservatives.”
Ross is widely seen to have badly miscalculated in his effort to unseat first minister Nicola Sturgeon over the unseemly Alex Salmond debacle. While the governing party’s mishandling of that episode undoubtedly damaged its own reputation, it also demonstrate how difficult it is for MSPs from a party led at UK level by Boris Johnson to preach integrity to others.
Johnson himself and several of his most senior ministers frequently find themselves mired in allegations of sleaze, cronyism and ministerial breaches.
So how can we trust the Scottish Conservatives to restore trust in our politics? Tulloch says: “I’ve worked in a regulated environment for my entire career, I believe very strongly in integrity, and [there is] no place in politics for people who don’t.”
The wider picture
But is our politics not on a slippery slope when, say, home secretary Pritti Patel is found to have breached the ministerial code and avoided any consequences? “I think people who breach codes do face consequences,” Tulloch claims.
He acknowledges “a fair amount of press on the former prime minister” David Cameron and his lobbying exploits, but adds: “Neither do I think what has happened in one particular area should necessarily dissuade people from looking at the wider picture – backing a party that is going to stand up for their interests, their rights, and being the main opposition party to the SNP.”
Many would share his sense that the topic of independence “comes up less in Shetland than it does in mainland Scotland”. That being so, how helpful is it for Tulloch that the subject dominates so much of the Conservatives’ campaigning literature?
“People are tired about the constant debate on independence and referendums. We’ve made it clear front and centre that we absolutely stand for the union, no distraction, rebuilding the country and making it prosperous rather than trying to separate ourselves from our biggest trading partner.”
Some would argue that is exactly what the Tories did by forging ahead with Brexit? “I would say that leaving Europe is quite a different prospect to breaking up the union, particularly looking at the volume of trade between Scotland and England – almost two thirds of Scottish trade,” Tulloch says.
“The UK as a standalone entity does have the resources to be that standalone entity, whereas I do not feel Scotland would necessarily prosper to the extent portrayed by the SNP.”
Please read our other candidate profiles here:
4 May – Independent candidate Peter Tait wants ‘greater emphasis on moral values’
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
17 April – ‘Punching above their weight’ – Lib Dem Wishart vows to continue speaking up for islanders
15 April – Nugent hopeful party’s ‘unique selling point’ will resonate with voters
To what extent will the downsides experienced by exporters since the end of the Brexit transition period in January prove to be a temporary blip? “Most of them will be teething problems, history shows import and export tends to work around logistical and bureaucratic challenges.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise we’ve seen some teething problems. We’re seeing them begin to recede: much greater speed at the border, much more clarity on what is required even for my own business in terms of understanding the paperwork.
“I don’t want to belittle it – [there has been] an enormous issue for a number of people, certain businesses, certain stores stocking what they need to stock – but I think over time that will recede and we’ll be able to enjoy some of the benefits of not being part of the EU. The freedom to make our own decisions on things that matter, for example the benefits we’ll see in local fishing rights.”
Shetland has benefited from large sums dispersed through EU schemes targeted at the regions over the years. Does Tulloch feel replacement funding pots should already have been initiated?
“I think it’s important we put sensible schemes in place. [We were] a net contributor to the EU. For all the funds that come, the resources will be greater.”
He feels supporting the rural economy requires areas including the islands to have “a strong voice in government”, which has not always been the case, and it will be “absolutely essential to maintain the integral structure of our country and the communities we represent. It is important that we ensure money, resource, time, individuals are directed in the right place and helped to sustain and build these economies.”
Should the islands be afforded greater decision-making clout? “I think it’s very important for me to say an Edinburgh government should be devoting resource to Shetland, but far better for the decision to be made in Shetland itself.”
It has been a “very strange” campaign shorn of the usual team of fellow campaigners going door to door. “A lot of it has been dealt with by myself, one on one, sitting at my desk, emails, phone calls, social media – I say this not as a complaint, but it’s been interesting.”
That said, while there is “no substitute” for getting out and “speaking to real people about real issues”, a digital campaign is “in some ways far more efficient” and Tulloch feels he has “made a decent connection” with voters so far.
He adds that he is “extremely flattered” to have been selected to stand in Shetland. “It’s an area that I’ve been to on a few occasions and have enjoyed my trips. I’ve always had a very special affection for Shetland given that my own family roots are based in Shetland, in Fetlar in particular.
“The opportunity to really make a difference is more pronounced than ever before – on the back of a pandemic that has done untold damage to our economies and communities, and I’m very, very keen to be part of that rebuilding process, and see the country emerge as it can from the situation that the world has put itself in.”
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 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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