The Shetland Card

Bernard-Ingham-at-the-funeral-of-Margaret-Thatcher-1837852

By George Rosie

For the last couple of years the Liberal MSPs Tavish Scott (Shetland) and Liam McArthur (Orkney) plus the Tory relic Malcolm Sinclair (Earl of Caithness) have been sounding off about the right of the inhabitants of Orkney and Shetland to vote to stay within the UK in the event of the rest of us voting for an independent Scotland. They claim that their  message is meeting a receptive audience in the islands where folk are quite content being ruled by London.  There’s a nice irony there. Whether or not they know it – and I suspect they don’t – Scott, McArthur and Sinclair are dancing to a tune composed by that wily old Yorkshirman Bernard Ingham back in the 1970s when he was top press officer at the now-defunct Department of Energy (DoE). Ingham, of course, went on to become one of Mrs Thatcher’s most loyal and zealous acolytes.

I suppose it might be argued that Ingham was playing into the Shetlanders’ lingering distaste of Scotland and of Edinburgh in particular. That does exist. In the summer of 2012 I was wandering the old grey castle at Scalloway, once home to the King’s man in Shetland, Sir Patrick Stuart.  I came across a bunch of local primary school kids and their teachers one of whom was relating the story of the castle. Her instructions were every time they heard the name Patrick Stuart they were to boo and hiss – which they did with great enthusiasm. It wasn’t much but it was enough to get me thinking.

And I don’t think Bernard Ingham was alone in his enthusiasm for driving a wedge between Shetlanders and the rest of Scotland. There’s good paper evidence that this particular wheeze was popular in the upper reaches of Whitehall and Westminster as a way of both `dishing’ the Nationalists and keeping oil and gas revenues out of the clutches of the Scots. So far as I can see, the first sign of this ploy came from Ingham’s colleague at the DoE, an Under Secretary called Graham Kear.

At the end of April 1975 Kear circulated a report entitled Scottish Devolution and North Sea Oil . While most of it is a run-down of the offshore oil industry the report contains an intriguing political suggestion. In Section 32 Kear points out that `If Scotland and the Orkney and Shetland Islands are both regarded as States, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, median lines can be drawn to divide the United Kingdom Continental Shelf between, Orkney & Shetland/Scotland and between Scotland/England.’

And in Section 33 he goes on `On this basis 53% of the oil reserves in existing discoveries “belong” to the Orkney/Shetland islands, 46% “belong” to Scotland and the remaining 1% “belong” to England.’ And in section 34 ` The majority of future oil discoveries are expected to be in “Scottish waters” or “Orkney/Shetland waters”.’

In Section 40 of his report Kear conclude that `The paper also demonstrates the importance of the Shetland and Orkney islands: any consideration of the effects of Scottish separation must take into account the possibility of pressure for the separation of the islands from the Scottish mainland.’

Which is the first airing, in black and white at least, that I can find of what became known as `The Shetland Card’. But there’s no doubt the mandarins of Whitehall thought that this was a jolly good idea. Because early in 1977 Anthony Crosland, then Foreign Secretary, wrote to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan to say that some of his civil servants had reported that this was one way to keep the North Sea oil fields out of the hands of the Scots.

The stratagem was exactly as Graham Kear and Bernard Ingham recommended: change the undersea border between Scotland and England so that it ran northeast instead of directly east and then persuade Orcadians and Shetlanders to declare UDI from Scotland and extend their subsea borders to the southeast. Simple! That way  the southern oilfields would be English and the rest would go to the Orcadians and the Shetlanders. The Scots would be left with hardly any oil and all the steam would go out of the SNP’s idea of an oil-rich independent Scotland.

Because, Crosland warned, something had to be done to stop the SNP bandwagon which was rampaging across the land. Otherwise Britain would pay a serious price. Crosland’s diplomats and civil servants were telling him that foreigners were beginning to talk. They were beginning to wonder how much longer Britain could hang on to North Sea oil. This speculation, Crosland told Callaghan, `could damage our international creditworthiness.’ And with the British economy in a sorry state Britain needed all the creditworthiness it could get. North Sea oil was the `collateral for UK borrowing’.

Crosland declared that the idea of diverting the Scotland/England sub-sea border could be spread by planting it among `selected public opinion formers’ (i.e. well-placed journalists) and some of the more loyal back-bench MPs. In the margin of Crosland’s letter Callaghan’s private secretary Nigel Wickes scribbled `looks sensible…. If handled sensibly. Do you agree…?’ It seems that Callaghan did agree because Crosland’s letter was circulated among ministers and top Whitehall mandarins for their comments. They approved, with very few reservations.

Nobody agreed with the strategy more than Bernard Ingham, then the civil servant running the Department of Energy’s information division. According to Ingham his division `… has sought for a long time in briefing to undermine SNP claims to North Sea oil: in the process it has played on the Shetland/Orkney uncertainty as well as the uncertainty about the angle of any dividing line between England and a hypothetically independent Scotland… Indeed it is part of my standard “sales patter”…’ In other words, Ingham had been playing the Shetland card for all it was worth.

In fact, Crosland and his men were slow off the mark. A month before Crosland recommended the Shetland Card to Jim Callaghan, the Sunday Times Business News had floated the notion. In a front page splash by James Poole dated December 5th 1976 entitled `Mapping the political power lines’ Poole examined the legality of Scotland’s claim to the oilfields. The piece was accompanied by four maps showing how `Scotland’s oil’ depended  on where the international lines are drawn. Poole suggested that if the England/Scotland was drawn more realistically, and if Orkney and Shetland decided to opt out of any independence deal, Scotland would be left with hardly any oil. Poole played the latter point for all it was worth:-

`Scottish oil is also under attack from the North. In the clearest possible terms, Shetland has indicated that it wants nothing to do with a separately governed Scotland, be it devolved or independent. A resolution in the local council letters last week to all MPs, and a private separation bill in course of preparation, reaffirm this strong desire to stay outside “Scotland”. And, like Scotland itself, the Shetlands has not always been part of the United Kingdom. It came from Norway in 1529 as a dowry to King Malcolm.’ (Which is a bit of a historical howler: it was 1472 and the king was James III.)

Poole goes on `Map Three shows how a median line could be drawn between Scotland and Shetland, based on the equidistance principle of the Geneva Convention. Two thirds of North Sea oil lies unequivocally in Shetland waters. If Shetland gets a chance to separate itself, all the indications are that the Orkneys would as well (Map Four).’

I’ve no doubt that Poole – who I knew as a good journalist – was aware of the Shetland card being trotted out by Bernard Ingham. But to beef it up Poole cited (and at some length) research by John Grant, then a senior lecturer in law at Glasgow University. Grant had examined Scotland’s claim to the North Sea oilfields and decided that Scotland was on shaky legal ground. In the event of any independence negotiations, he argued, the existing maritime `border’ between Scotland and England would be have to be replaced by a line that continued the southwest/northeast line of the land border. Which meant that most of the southern oilfields would fall into English hands. And if the Shetlanders were allowed to extend their maritime border, then….

Poole’s article based on Grant’s essay did not go unnoticed by the Labour government. Michael Foot, then Lord President, wrote to assure Tony Crosland that `…we have taken a number of steps, somewhat along the lines your officials have suggested, to counteract this…’ Foot cites James Poole’s article and claimed that  `it was John Smith who suggested to James Poole that he should write an article in the Sunday Times based on a first class essay on oil and gas by John Grant…’ John Smith MP, then Minister of State at the Privy Council office, went on to succeed Neil Kinnock as Labour leader from July 1992 until his sudden death in 1994.

Whether the playing of the Shetland card by Westminster and its acolytes had any effect on the eventual outcome of the devolution referendum is hard to say. But it may well have done. When the votes were counted in March 1979 Shetland and the Orkneys were the only parts of the Highlands and Islands to vote against a devolved Scottish parliament. And they both voted `no’ by thumping majorities (5,466 to 2020 in the case of Shetland: 5439 to 2104 in the case of Orkney). No doubt Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur are hoping for a repeat performance in September next year.



Categories: Commentary

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44 replies

  1. I think it is worthwhile comparing Cornwall to Shetland. Unionists never mention Cornwall, but mention Shetland continually.

    Here are the facts:

    PRO
    * Many Shetlanders don’t consider themselves Scottish, many Cornish don’t consider themselves English.
    * Both Shetland and Cornwall have their own legal systems – udal and stannary.

    ANTI
    * There is no real attempt whatsoever to revive the Norn in Shetland. In Cornwall, they have a preschool, a Bible translation, internet radio etc etc
    * There is no Shetland party. Mebyon Kernow on the other hand celebrated fifty years recently, and counts certain MPs and Daphne du Maurier amongst former members. Cornish nationalism is much better organised than Shetland nationalism.

    In the period after WWII, Shetland’s population has halved, but that of the Faroes has doubled. Clearly UK rule has wrecked Shetland, despite oil etc.

  2. Which is why the Scottish Government has headed them off at the pass by offering a settlement to all the Island Authorities.

  3. When I start to read what certain people now pose as questions,I turn off because I think the two “politicians” are not bright enough to be taken seriously.Nothing against the author of the blog just the lack of thinking from the Tavish one and Caithness clown.

  4. According to this graph (Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 2011 – sorry, couldn’t find more recent), both Orkney and Shetland seem pretty well in line with the national average as regards identity.

  5. Might want to study the key map produced at the end of a long legal study on the matter in the European Journal of International Law:

    Basically, Shetland and Norway (even if they were allowed to remain in the UK after a no vote in the referendum, which would not be allowed) would be regarded as a small island exclave of a foreign state (England) on the Scottish Continental Shelf and would only be entitled to the 12 mile limit and perhaps a connecting corridor.

  6. The scoto-english union led to economic decline in both Orkney and Shetland. Kernow is one of the poorest areas of the UK. It is not a problem in theoretical physics to work out that there is something anomalous here. Wars have broken out due to meddling of this kind. These guys are playing with matches.

  7. The first time I set foot in Lerwick, in Feb 1979, a guy spat on me in Commercial Street. I was wearing a tartan scarf because it was freezing. This was followed up by him yelling ‘du Scotch bastard’ at me. However, only once in all the time since then have I encountered hostility in Shetland because I was Scottish, and never at all in Orkney. It may be that the historic resentment of Shetlanders against Scots has been tempered by their experience of the large number of English people who moved to Shetland over the years since oil was discovered, thus providing a rough basis for comparison as to how London rule would compare with that from Edinburgh. My guess is that Shetlanders would like to have something like the same status as Faroe has with Denmark., which would allow them a great degree of autonomy. They will be aware that the Faoese economy more or less collapsed in the 1990s (fish stock collapse), resulting in the application of a Danish safety net. There is definitely a unique Shetland form of nationalism, though it never got very far despite an absolutely excellent local candidate. I’m not aware that it has any strong current form. The potential loss of access to local Shetland fishing grounds that could happen with the ‘island enclave’ scenario may be the killer for English ambitions to partition future Scottish territory. Personally, I loved living in Shetland and consider both Shetlanders and Orcadians to be great people.

  8. I forgot to mention the Lib Dems/Liberals. They’ve been promising home rule to both Shetland and Cornwall since the year dot, and have never delivered despite being in power in Westminster and Holyrood several times.

    Cornish people put 50,000 names to a petition for an Assembly. Lib Dems have never delivered on it.

    If Shetland doesn’t want to be Scottish, I respect that. Scotland has treated it badly historically, and their history is different.

    However, the solution is not remaining in the UK. It’s with Faroese style devo followed by an option for independence. Not as a tool of London.

  9. Good historical article but bit that torpedoes the reality is ENCLAVE …. islands would be enclaves if not in Scotland

  10. I was in Shetland in March. Everyone I spoke to said that despite all the windy rhetoric from the Liberals, Shetland would stick with Scotland.

  11. When Alistair Carmichael replaced Michael Moore I could think of no good reason for doing that other than that Carmichael is the MP for Orkney, and that Westminster is thinking ahead to the possibility of encouraging a NO vote in the Northern Isles, no matter how the rest of Scotland votes. Examine the motives of every little thing the UK government does in relation to the independence situation.

  12. The dishonesty from Scott and friends in this is clear.The fact that they acknowledge that the islanders have a vote in the Scottish referendum means that they accept that the islands are part of Scotland.Any succession after independence would be from the Scottish state and not England.There is nothing in the referendum about Shetland,Govan,Stornoway or anywhere else having an opt out should the local vote be no (despite the wishes of some unionist politicians).

  13. If the Northern Isles leave Scotland, they leave Scots Law, they leave the Scottish education system, they leave the Scottish NHS, etc. Are they ready for that kind of upheaval? Ferries to Newcastle instead of Aberdeen? £9000 p.a. to attend a university? Northumberland Constabulary enforcing English law?

    • Ah! Northumberland/ Northumbria at one time under the Scottish crown along with Cumberland. At one time the border extended to just north of York. Of course English history is amnesiac about such embarrassing detail. Tit for tat!

      • Abulhaq is this a new version of history? Northumbria was never part of Scotland. In fact the Angle kingdom of Northhumbria stretched from the river Humber to the Forth. In 1018 Lothian then part of Northumbria was annexed to Scotland and as late as 1091 King David refered to the people living in Lothian as “the English subjects of the king”. Cumberland in 945 was ceded to Malcolm 1st, 1092 it was English again, 1135 Scots and in 1157 English again. Finally in 1237 the border was agreed. The Scottish border never extended to just north of York. In 1138 King David invaded northern England three times. This was during a civil war in England. Deep into English territory he was defeated at the Battle of the Standard north of York. Scots Kings usually choose to invade when ever they thought England was at its weakest.

      • @Donald Hodgson…..That is standard oxfordesque establishment history more “herrenvolkisch” Lord Dacre, inter alia, than actual raw fact. these territories were never English in the modern sense. never counted by the Domesday Book inventory. culturally they are within the “Scottish” sphere of influence. the presence of a King of Scots at the laying of the foundations of Durham Cathedral is significant. English by the way means Inglis which simple means means Angle who, as you know, were invaders along with the Jutes and West Saxons. The term is not the same as English in current use as there was no unitary state called England until the Norman warlords, not Alfred styled the Great, created one. And there was no feeling of being “English” until much later. Shakespeare ( mythmonger in chief), imperialist history of the 19th century, Arthurian mythologizing, modern wars and cinema helped create that. I prefer reading Davies and his take on England as a country ruled by French speaking incomers who fabricated an identity to serve their predatory political ambitions. Their descendants still rule, still run the myth-making machine. Just look at popular “history” on tv. It is unlikely we”ll agree on this as an objective modern Scottish history has yet to come out of the closet.

  14. The Shetland and Orkney issue is a kind of stick to beat any non-Westminster Union supporters with and “exhaust” pro-Scottish Independence supporters too. A kind of meme that seems to have become the complete truth in some circles. On the comment sections of many newspapers there is often one or more commenters who´ll throw a “Shetland will stay with Westminster” comment and get a flurry of responses. Probably as the original commenter enjoys the schadenfreude.

    Both Orkney and Shetland voted for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament (assembly) in 1997. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the 2011 Census in Scotland showed that People in Orkney and Sheland were as likely as anywhere else to identify as only Scottish (around 60%) and a somewhat smaller proportion identified as both Scottish and British. So there is no doubt about the Scottish identity (alone or mixed with other identities) of the Islands. You don´t get more comprehensive than the national census.

    http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/sep/26/where-in-scotland-people-feel-not-british

    While Tavish Scott´s comments were widely reported a poll slipped under the Radar (ie was ignored) that showed that only 8% of people in Orkney and Shetland wanted Independence from Scotland.

    http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/3201771

    I wonder why this wasn´t reported but the talk by Mr Scott was headline news? (BTW I don´t really wonder why.)

    Unionists are only truely Unionists with respect to their focus on Westminster. To the rest of the world Unionists are actually “Partitionists”. It was, afterall, a Liberal led government with Conservative coalition support that oversaw the partition of Ireland in 1920 – 1922. Oh, the sad irony considering today´s Westminster government party members. Partition overseen by Westminster goes well beyond The Uk and Ireland

    Anyway, I´ll be in and around Lerwick next week for a few days so I´ll see and hear what the case is then.

  15. Independence is an option that has an appeal in the Northern Isles which are populated by independent-minded people. i.e. people who know how to look after themselves against all the odds. It came as no surprise to me that the first person to stop me in the street and express open enthusiasm for independence after the referendum was announced should be a woman from Shetland. No agonising over detail for her; no hanging back and weighing up the pros and cons of pensions, defence, citizenship etc. etc.

  16. This Westminster shite is one of the reasons this particular Sheltie joined the SNP. Nobody likes being used.
    The original idea that Shetland is ‘not part’ of Scotland was a Victorian Tory fabrication and a reaction to the home rule movement. Fake then and fake now

  17. “Northern Isles are Scottish say the islanders”
    An opinion poll of residents of the Northern Isles, commissioned by the Press and Journal newspaper, has given the lie to claims by certain supporters of the anti-independence campaign that Shetland and Orkney might seek to remain a part of the UK if Scotland becomes independent.

    The poll, published in the newspaper on Wednesday, finds that 82%, the overwhelming majority, of the islanders wish to remain Scottish.

    Asked “Should Shetland/Orkney be independent countries, separate from Scotland?” only 8% of islanders who participated in the poll said that they were in agreement, with a further 10% saying they did not know.

    http://www.newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-politics/7203-northern-isles-are-scottish-say-islanders

    April 2013

  18. Tavish doesn’t speak for me, or most of the people I know from Shetland. We’d rather be governed by London. The idea that our independence is such we’d rather London than Edinburgh is beyond parody. And as for the idea we think we’re more Norwegian? Love the heritage but we’re Shetland first and Scottish second.

  19. Anyone question the right of Orkney and Shetlands to a eez? the way i see it as enclaves they would be entitled to a 12 mile zone around their shore in which no oil exists, and they know it.

  20. as long as the independence question is framed in economic terms alone this kind of meddling will recur. Scotland is a well defined cultural entity with distinct cultural provinces within its borders. our cultures have experienced centuries of systematic gross neglect. hopefully after independence remedial action will be taken to restore and promote our unique patrimony. enthusiasts are attempting restoration of the language spoken in Orkney and Shetland, similar to Faroese, even though the inhabitants are either indifferent or hostile. Gaelic speakers know the syndrome. We Scots do have a thing about speaking our neighbour’s language. We have a perverse habit of shooting ourselves in the head with weaponry provided by the adversary. We still have a lot of basic existential lessons to learn about “nationhood”.

    • Da language spoaken in Shetlan is Broad Scots, – streectly spaekin ‘Insular Scots’. Da language ‘similar to Faeroese’ wis Norn, last spoaken ida 18th century. E.g. George Lowm in 1775 fan an owld man, William Henry o Guttorm, wha could recite 35 five verses of a Norn ballad haunded doun tae him fae his owld fok, in a language he didna understaund

      • Braid Scots or a form of it, a modern and anglicised version of Scots, is indeed the linguistic norm in Orkney and Shetland. Mixed with surviving elements from the older norse tongue it has become rather iconic of cultural identity among Shetlanders. However being the language of the mainland Scottish “oppressors” it simply confirms what I said about Scots people in general. We consistently back the wrong horse. We just do not get the “nationhood” thing: we seem to be a nation of dull and prosaic utilitarians. Millions of (non-utilitarian and non-insular) Catalans however do. Its about our KULTÚR and nothing else. We are wasting our time otherwise. The referendum will be lost next year unless some heat is kindled under this tedious, bone dry campaign. And that is not just my view.
        The nornlanguage site is very interesting: clever people with a noble intent. From very small acorns…A different universe though.

      • Der is a web project to re establish Norn.

        http://nornlanguage.110mb.com/index.php?dict/n

        Well worth a look and interesting at how many words are still in daily use

  21. In the run-up to the 79 referendum, a Sutherland Gael whom I assumed to be pro-devo told me there was no way he’d vote Yes. When I asked why, he said: ‘In London they don’t give a damn about Highlanders, but in Edinburgh they hate us!’ It’s not necessary to know a lot of Highland history to know why that rings true. Although I’ll vote yes next September, it’ll be against the background of an SNP govt that’s done more to reduce Highland autonomy than any UK govt in more than 100 years,

    • Interesting, thanks for the comment. Can I ask are you THE Jim Hunter?

    • Scottish autonomy is what is on offer. In what way has the SNP reduced Highland autonomy? They are better represented than they ever were under Labour, who took orders from London only. The Highlands and Islands have a University (2011). The A9 is being steadily improved despite the unionists stealing money for their vanity trams in Edinburgh. Ferry travel is greatly subsidised. Bridge Tolls gone. The SNP are fighting tooth and nail for the Highlands. Westminster stole EU money meant to help farmers. They are dragging their heels on Carbon Capture, and fair Grid tarrifs. The Highlands are a much better place than they ever were. As Scotland will be next year.

  22. Excellent and very well researched article. What an eye-opener. It is absolutely crucial that people in Orkney and Shetland should be aware of just how cynically Westminster politicians are seeking to exploit their perfectly understandable and justified sense of uniqueness and difference for their own nefarious ends. .

  23. A very interesting article and good to see awareness of how the independence debate may look from a Shetland perspective. I’d say that most Shetlanders are already very much aware – and wary – of Westminster politicians’ attempts to use any misgivings about Hollyrood rule to further their own agenda.

    The history goes back a little further than Bernard Ingham though. I’m old enough to remember the attempt in the 1960s to amalgamate Shetland, Orkney and a chunk of the Highlands into one regional authority as part of the Wheatley proposals for local government in Scotland. This was led by the Scottish Office and the then Secretary of State, Willie Ross, but very much seen in Shetland as another Scottish/Edinburgh land and power grab in a tradition going back to the 1600s. The attempt was ill-judged to say the least, received with fury and seen as all the more significant with the beginnings of the oil era on the horizon at the time. It contributed greatly to the groundswell of opinion in Shetland behind Joe Grimond’s steering the act through parliament that led to much greater local control of (and income from) the oil industry than would otherwise have been the case. Bernard Ingham may indeed have sown seeds of division, but he was sowing them in soil well-prepared by previous folly.

    Shetland/Scotland relations are sometimes a miniature mirror of Scottish/English ones. I’m not aware of much animosity at a personal level and I’m appalled that David Smillie was spat at in the street, but there is a different history and a different perspective. Things that make perfect sense in Edinburgh can look entirely different from the far north and I’ve got some sympathy for Jim Hunter’s misgivings about the creeping centralisation of power in Hollyrood.

    Finally, could commentators take care with the Enclave Issue? Arguing that Shetland will only be left with a 12 mile EEZ looks or can be made to look (from a Shetland perspective) more like a threat of yet another Edinburgh land and power grab than a good argument for backing independence. I think it’s vanishingly unlikely that Shetland would attempt to stay within the UK after a yes vote, much more likely that there will be moves in the future towards a Faroe/Denmark relationship with Scotland. Even if the unthinkable were to happen and there was a move towards UK Crown Dependency status, and it has been talked about, there would have to be negotiation about seabed rights. How would it look to the world if the first act of a newly independent Scotland was to try to grab Shetland waters?

    • I was spat on, not spat at. This was a 6.30 on a very stormy cold morning and I’d just got off a German oil rig supply ship. I guess the guy was probably just drunk from the night before. Similar things happen in Scotland – I wasn’t appalled, it just showed me there was a different culture in Shetland. Sullom Voe was being built at that time and the islands were like the Wild West. I remember some Shetlanders expressing deep regret about the passing of their culture at that time, often very eloquently. I agree with you that a strong form of devolution would suit many Shetlanders aspirations. Personally I’d like to see a federal cantonal arrangement if Scotland becomes independent. We are, after all, about twice the size of Switzerland, and have many distinct regional cultures which are pretty much ignored by the London and Glasgow-centric BBC.

  24. A recent opinion poll in Berwick on Tweed showed over 60 % wanted to be part of Scotland.
    It was once part of Scotland and was supposed to be returned to Scotland after 1707

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