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Letters / PR stunts with no electoral mandate

In February 1976, members of the Shetland Islands Council met to discuss constitutional policy.

In the context of moves to establish a Scottish Assembly, the council had earlier approved a motion opposing “any devolution other than devolution involving the independence of Shetland” and wishing for “the continuation of their direct links with the Westminster government”.

Several members of the public and a handful of councillors questioned the council’s mandate to make such a policy.  A majority of councillors elected in 1974 had not run on manifestos pledging to weaken Shetland’s links with Scotland.

However, chief executive Ian Clark reassured councillors that as the council’s policy had been published in The Shetland Times and received “little public comment,” it was “reasonable to assume the council’s approach was consistent with the view prevailing in Shetland.”

Representative democracy in action!

In another meeting, council convener A.I. Tulloch met this criticism with the argument that “councillors could be expected to be in a position to judge whether their own views coincided with those of the people they represented”.

Similar logic appears to prevail in both the Orkney and Shetland islands councils today.  Despite no apparent mandate for such a policy emerging from last year’s council elections, Orkney Islands Council has just decided to embark on a policy of pursuing “greater autonomy”.

This is very similar to a motion passed in the Shetland Islands Council in September 2020.  Yet, with the exception of one webinar, there does not appear to have been any public engagement (or progress) with this policy in the subsequent years.

In last year’s Shetland Islands Council election, constitutional change barely featured.

A survey conducted by The Shetland Times during the campaign period found ‘autonomy’ ranked second last among 15 issues as election priorities.

Nor did constitutional issues feature prominently among council candidates’ public statements.

From my anecdotal experience of attending hustings in Shetland West, despite the best efforts of one candidate to raise the question of autonomy, it was not an issue of interest.  People were much more concerned about tackling housing shortages and the cost of living.

This is not to argue the Orcadian and Shetland public are necessarily opposed to their councils’ actions.  Dissatisfaction with both the Scottish and UK governments is certainly widespread and it is clearly possible to argue the current constitutional setup holds back progress on the policy areas people care about.

But the fact is we simply do not know how people feel about these constitutional explorations – much less headlines that this may lead to “rejoining Norway”.

Neither council appears to have undertaken efforts – certainly not in public – to ascertain whether they’re acting with public support.  There is no electoral mandate.

If these policies of ‘self-determination’ or ‘greater autonomy’ are to be more than PR stunts to gain attention from central government and the national media – and that may be all they turn out to be – they will need genuine and widespread support from the Shetland and Orcadian people.

So far, there has been virtually no attempt to even measure if this is the case, let alone try to build such support.

Mathew Nicolson
Edinburgh

See also:

‘Status quo is failing both island groups’, SIC councillor says ahead of Orkney motion

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