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 indicat
ions 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.