Island Voice

A central theme of Bella Caledonia’s new journal, Closer, is that democracy must become more localised – decisions should be made as near to the people they affect as possible. That principle, of self-determination and community empowerment, is just beginning to find a coherent voice in the islands.

The Our Islands Our Future conference, held in Kirkwall at the end of last week, brought together community representatives from Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, as well as politicians and other delegates from across the UK and Europe. The event was intended to bring focus to a campaign that has so far been big on impact but – publicly, at least – rather lacking in substance.

Back in June, the leaders of the three island councils declared their intention to seek greater powers, regardless of whether or not Scotland votes to become independent. It was a pronouncement that took many by surprise, including in the islands. The response to the campaign, though, was equally surprising.

Just over a month later, following a cabinet meeting in Shetland, Alex Salmond made what he called ‘The Lerwick Declaration’. The Scottish government not only backed the islands’ claim to greater autonomy, Mr Salmond said, but a ministerial working group would be set up to ensure that claim was progressed.

And so, headlong, has this campaign tumbled.

Earlier this year, I criticised MSP Tavish Scott for a rather silly speech in which he called for Shetland to rise up against the nation. The Northern Isles “are not going to be told what to do by the SNP”, Mr Scott announced. Instead, they would “seize the opportunity for island home rule”.
Our Islands Our Future is a rather different campaign. It is not about seizing anything; nor is it about grandstanding or headline-grabbing.

From the beginning, the three council leaders have shown a willingness to work not just with the Scottish government but also with the coalition in Westminster. They are making all the right moves, and it seems already that everyone is dancing to their tune.

Sitting in the conference hall last Thursday and Friday, it was remarkable to hear speaker after speaker announce their support for the campaign.

Ian Davidson MP, the chair of the Scottish affairs select committee; Derek Mackay MSP, minister for local government; Lord Wallace, the advocate general for Scotland; Dennis Canavan, chairman of Yes Scotland; Sarah Boyack MSP; Mike MacKenzie MSP, Liam McArthur MSP. Not a word of dissent was spoken.

There was encouragement too from beyond the UK. Jóannes Hansen from Faroe and Jörgen Pettersson from the Åland parliament both offered their support. If the islands choose to begin moving towards autonomy, said Mr Pettersson, “we will be there for you”.

Jean-Didier Hache, an expert in the constitutional status of European islands, told the conference that Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles were currently the odd ones out in Europe. Most other island regions have already negotiated special status within their nation states and within the EU. “You are not at all breaking into new ground”, he said.

For the island councils, the event could hardly have gone better. Their campaign has support in Holyrood and in Westminster; it has enthusiasm and it has momentum. Things, it seems, are going to change.

But let’s not get carried away here.

Our Islands Our Future is not a grassroots movement for self-determination. It is a campaign pushed forward by councillors, which has so far failed to inspire much interest within the communities they serve. In fact, in Shetland at least, the response has been virtual silence. A collective shrugging of the shoulders; a cynical smile; a sigh.

If the campaign is to continue, that must change. And it must change quickly. Without demonstrable support for what they are doing, the island authorities cannot and should not go further. Their aims, while good intentioned, will not be legitimate.

“Devolution was never supposed to stop at Edinburgh” said Shetland’s political leader, Gary Robinson, in his opening speech to the conference. And he is right. Devolution needs to go further. It needs to go beyond Holyrood, and beyond the town halls of Lerwick, Kirkwall and Stornoway.

If Our Islands Our Future is to live up to its own rhetoric – if it is to be truly successful – the communities and the people of the islands must be at the very heart of it.

Malachy Tallack is a writer and singer-songwriter from Shetland. He is editor of The Island Review.

Comments (17)

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  1. I cant help feeling that the islanders are getting used for the benefit of a few people and maybe even being stirred up by the Westminster party to take some voices away from the independence movement as a whole,just that feeling.

  2. Virgil Caine says:

    What frustrates me is why is this just a potential option for the islands? Why can’t similar localised powers be granted throughout the country?

    1. Malachy Tallack says:

      Virgil, there are models of local devolution outwith the islands, such as the City Deals in England – Scotland would certainly benefit from greater community empowerment generally.

      However, islands across Europe do commonly have ‘special status’ within their nation states. This is partly to give them the opportunity to counterbalance the impediments of remoteness etc. But often there are also cultural / historical issues that encourage the desire for self-determination.

      1. Virgil Caine says:

        There has been a complete failure within the UK and in devolved Scotland to give appropriate local government – as Andy Wightmen argues we are the most under-represented country in the whole of the EU at the local level and there has been a constant eroding of this since the 70s. Creating stronger city regions will not solve this, they currently exacerbate the problem in the way that they already ineffectively represent citizens whilst also being held under the thumb of Holyrood – as much as I enjoy the council tax freeze – it weakens the local democratic power and interestingly such a move in Germany would be illegal.

        Constantly throughout UK and Scottish politics there is always talk about decentralisation but when it comes down to it the ‘centre’ never wants to give up its power. Great piece on failings of this rhetoric by New Labour/Tories here ( and it seems to be similar pattern followed by the SNP. I would love to see a comprehensive local gov plan for post-indy to be developed but to date very little has been discussed.

  3. It Is not just the islands, Highland council is too big and Caithness to remote from both parliaments.

    1. Virgil Caine says:

      Great point! Saw a really interesting paper on this at a conference discussing the political geography/sociology of how Caithness is folded into a ‘highland’ narrative despite not being part of the highlands.

  4. Very definitely a councillor-led rather than a demand from the people. You need only look at the census results on national identity to see why.

    Having seen the Shetland Islands Council in action over many years, the prospect of more powers for them makes me very uneasy. I say this as an instinctive decentralist. More power for the SIC is not perhaps good news for the outer isles of Shetland, who have been treated fairly shabbily by the SIC. How long did it take to get a pier for Fetlar? 40 years?

    And why only the Isles? Scotland for all the historical reasons we are familiar with has a very skewed population distribution. And that means that the elected chamber of the Scottish Parliament will correctly and inevitably always under-represent the periphery. Dumfries & Galloway, The Borders, The Highlands, Argyll, the Inner Hebrides and parts of the North-east are always going to be on the margins.

    Greater local autonomy is one potential route. A Senate is another solution and I think a better one. A Senate, with one or two Senators from each local authority area perhaps, would act as a check and balance on Holyrood, AND provide representation for the periphery.

    It is possible, as we see at present, that one party can get an absolute majority in Holyrood, even with a proportional electoral system. This is not a good thing, for democracy.

    Yes for a Senate of The Regions. Not convinced for SIC+

    1. sean mcgee says:

      I have much the same feeling re Orkney Island Council. There is very little public awareness of “island autonomy” and at street level it would, I’m sure evoke a great deal of scepticism about the competence of local government both at officer and elected level – a feeling that is supported by a lot of evidence.

      1. I use ta listen ta Radio Orkney at da time at OIC converted a goodly amoont o der Oil money and poored it inta da Sea in Caithness tryin ta make a brakwatter in a very silly place. Joost aboot every broadcast or statement for months started wi, or featured ‘It’s Absolooootly Riddiculus’. Hilarious! But also serious

  5. Abulhaq says:

    One of the problems with “grass-roots democracy” is that the grass-roots can often be in practice very reactionary. Sometimes the top down variety forces change where otherwise there would be an obdurate resistance. Island autonomy is not a novelty. The BritState tolerates crown dependencies ie Channel Islands and Isle of Man as tax havens but they developed their autonomy because they were largely ignored by the centre or were feudal domains. They are hardly modern versions of island autonomy. The Faroes offer an ideal model for the Northern and Western islands. Retaining its distinct language, close to the old Norn of Orkney and Shetland, the Faroes independent mind-set would benefit from being transfused to our rather wimpish Vikings. The Western Isles need autonomy and development. Central government, however, would have to set the ball rolling there too.

  6. I was one of the invited attendees at the conference and the key element was the revelation by Jean Didier Hache who plainly showed in a wonderfully simple slide that any enshrined special attention for the island groups could only come as a result of a re-negotiated entry to Europe by an independent Scottish Government. For the UK govt the door is closed to any change to the original treaty.The opportunity to notice the islands had different needs and act on them in a UK context was at the point of entry to the EU in the 70s when the treaty of accession to the EU was being negotiated. The Tory UK government of the time was doing exactly the opposite in respect of not only the isles but the whole of Scotland, lasciviously offering up the entire fishing industry through common access to the (mainly Scottish ) fishing resource to Europe as a lucrative bargaining chip to EU entry. This was strongly opposed in the fishing communities, yet having no voice and no possible means of influencing Westminster our 200 mile limit and precious resource was given away. For fishing the rest is history. Orkney reduced from 14 trawlers to 3 since that time. The correlation nationally is similar and the strangulation of EU fishing regulation is an immovable bureaucratic nightmare. Re-negotiation of the terms of entry to Europe is a win-win for isles communities. It is an opportunity for the negotiating government of the day to reclaim much of what was lost in terms of fishing resource and rebuild a viable catching and processing industry, pretty essential to a country with such a massive coastline. It is worrying therefore to hear Nicola Sturgeon again proferring our fishing resource as a means of ensuring Spain doesn’t veto Scottish entry to the EU. The boot should be on the other foot and no-one should contemplate selling out the industry twice over.
    The big problem for the isles and the quality of their councils who are indeed in a bubble of their own, is that they must find a way to open up the pool of those who can become a councillor. As dual purpose authorities no employees can stand for election. This excludes one fifth of the adult population from street-sweepers to teachers. On the mainland an employee of a District Council could be a councillor on the Regional Authority. The lack of political maturity in the dominance of the ‘good guy’ independent councillor is also a fundamental democratic weakness in terms of accountability. Once elected they can essentially do as they please for 4 years. One suggestion was that independents should face election every year. Island voters need to be offered clear manifesto options from their councillors, otherwise they are simply ‘electing’ a type of oligarchy.

  7. Fiona – ‘Independent’ Councillors are a major obstacle and a sign of political immaturity IMHO. Particularly annoying when some of these ‘Independents’ are leading members of local political parties, and may even become leader of the council. There is no programme, there is no admistration, there is no opposition: and therefore there is no opportunity for change. Frankly, it sucks!

  8. B McGhee says:

    I have always been in favour of more devo for areas that can benefit from it, e.g. The islands or Galloway, and the return of town councils elsewhere. Yet recently I was talking to a couple of Shetlanders – one pro indy, one against – yet both were united in their suspicion of SIC gaining more powers. A shame, SIC negotiated a good deal from oil companies in the 70s but its performance has obviously fallen away since.

  9. Derrick – Totally agree and also on the general point that devolution has to not just be about islands but also peripheral areas outside the central belt, so its worrying indeed that the SNP govt seem to be very centralist minded.

  10. This is why the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution that results is fundamental to renewing our democracy! A Senate and a constitutional entrenchment of local government are essentials. It’s not really up to any one Party to set that out now. Much more basic than that: we need to look at the foundations, not the detail of the architecture

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