Earlier this week, a petition was launched on the Scottish parliament’s website that will certainly have raised eyebrows, if not concerns, at Holyrood.
The petition calls on the Scottish government to hold three further referendums – in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles – the week after September’s vote on independence. These secondary ballots would ask people to clarify their wishes for the future of the island groups: to remain with Scotland or to become independent themselves. If the country votes Yes on September 18th a third option would also be available to islanders: to leave Scotland and remain part of the UK.
Normally, petitions such as these require 50,000 signatures before they will be given parliamentary time. But because of their small populations this rule does not apply to matters concerning the islands. Those behind the petition hope that 1,000 names will be enough for their request to be taken seriously.
This is not the first time the desire for constitutional change in Scotland has been complicated by the actions of those at its outermost edges. At last year’s Liberal Democrat spring conference, Shetland’s MSP Tavish Scott declared that “this is the time to seize the opportunity for island home rule … The Northern Isles can have their own government”. His speech surprised not just journalists and politicians, but his own constituents too.
Over the past year, a rather more diplomatic approach to local self-determination has been taken by the three island councils, who have been quietly lobbying, both in Edinburgh and in London, for greater autonomy. Their campaign, Our Islands, Our Future, seeks to have certain decision-making powers devolved to Lerwick, Kirkwall and Stornoway, whether Scotland becomes independent or not.
This is an entirely sensible campaign – one which recognises the unique needs and interests of the island groups, and which is trying to find practical yet potentially radical ways to address those needs. The proposed island referendums, with their blunt, hokey cokey questions (in, out, or shake it all about), are considerably less sensible, and will change nothing at all.
The reason they will change nothing is quite simple: there is no desire for change. The online petition is not the result of any real groundswell of opinion; it is the work of a very small group of individuals.
The fact is that the islands do not have any kind of popular movements demanding statehood or independence from Scotland, and such movements are not going to materialise in the next six months. The Western Isles in particular has elected SNP representatives in both of the last two Westminster and Holyrood elections. The notion that they might suddenly decide to abandon Scotland is beyond far-fetched.
In the Northern Isles the matter is just a little more complicated. Orcadians and Shetlanders are certainly the most reluctantly Scottish of Scots, and the majority in both archipelagos will probably vote No on September 18th. But the oft-repeated claim that people in the Northern Isles are ‘more Scandinavian than Scottish’ is a fantasy, perpetuated by wide-eyed journalists who believe anything a tourist brochure tells them.
Of course, both Shetland and Orkney were once part of Norway, and that connection is still evident in the genetics of the population. But those facts alone say very little about the way that people actually live their lives, here and now. Today, the vast majority of links – economic, educational, social, cultural – are with Scotland. Islanders read Scottish newspapers, they watch Scottish television, and most will support Scotland in sporting events, particularly if the opponent is England. Historical connections may be with the east, but present ones are overwhelmingly with the south.
People in the Northern Isles defend, rightly, their distinctive history and heritage. But faced with the reality of going it alone or remaining in the UK – a change of legal system, a change of education system, the necessity of traveling hundreds of additional miles for hospital appointments or work, and a multitude of other inconveniences, both minor and major – I have no doubt that islanders would choose, without much hesitation, to stay where they are.
By all means, give the people of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles a referendum, but don’t expect it to change anything. Greater autonomy for the island councils may be around the corner, but abandoning Scotland altogether is not even on the map.