True North

orkneyflagmoveORKSHET_004We’ve covered attempts to manipulate the democratic process before (‘The Shetland Card’). Here Malachy Tallack reports on the latest efforts to bring the Northern Isles into play.

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.

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  1. Will McEwan says:

    I am reliably informed by someone who works politically in the Northern Isles that the YES vote is strong and climbing and he expects it to prevail. There is no indication whatsover that either Orkney or Shetland want to leave Scotland but there is a considerable appetite fro devolution of some powers and functions to island’s councils which the Scottish Government is very happy to give serious consideration to.
    If they want by majority to be independent that of course is their right but there is no evidence of any significant appetite for this
    In the completely unlikely event of them wanting to remain as a part of England they become enclaves in Scottish territorial waters (with no access toi oilfields)

    1. setondene says:

      And, just as important for Shetlanders, with no access to their main fishing grounds. A sort of Isle of Man scenario where the Manx fishing fleet are restricted to fishing for prawns and scallops inside their own territorial limits (12 miles off their coast I think).

  2. Kirriereoch says:

    Well argued. One concern is who must sign the petition. Must people be from the islands to sign it or, as I´ve heard, can it be anyone wherever they reside across the world. If it´s the latter then “The British State” machine must be smiling.

    One aspect that could be clarified is when you state:

    “Orcadians and Shetlanders are certainly the most reluctantly Scottish of Scots”

    In the 2011 census in Scotland Orcadians and Shetlanders all said people there were around 60% Scottish only, which is actually more than some other areas of Scotland such as Argyll and Bute. In addition around 15% identified as being Scottish and British.

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

    A Press and Journal poll showed that islanders wanted to remain with Scotland with only 8% of respondents preferring not to remain with Scotland. Naturally this was as widely reported as Mr Scott´s comments regarding the Northern Isles. Or wasn´t as widely reported as the case may be:

    http://archive.is/RUCP2

    In sum Orcadians and Shetlanders identify overwhelmingly as primarily Scottish or Scottish & British.

    Furthermore, when I last visited Shetland, at the start of the current year, I had only one conversation regarding the referendum and it appeared that while Shetland may vote no in September the conversation also noted that if Scotland as a whole votes yes then there is no chance that Shetland wants to be “left out” and certainly doesn´t want to remain in the hands of Westminster. To paraphrase, “If Scotland votes for independence then Shetland stays with Scotland too.”

  3. G H Graham says:

    What drives folks like Tavish Scott is his imagined threat that if Scotland returns to full, sovereign independence, the residents of the Orkney & Shetland Isles will demand likewise, taking much of the oil wealth with them. This is intended to take the steam out of the SNP’s economic argument that Scotland would easily cope once it has unlocked the shackles of being chained the once great British state.

    Tavish Scott though is living in a state of altered reality. But perhaps the opportunist Mr. Scott might want to answer this. Why has there be no demonstrable demand for island independence since oil & gas started to be extracted from the North Sea?

    I’ll answer for him, lest he get his logic twisted by wishful thinking. There has been nowhere near a majority let alone a grass roots campaign for full island autonomy at any time since the 1970’s. Furthermore, international boundary & maritime law clearly shows that that neither Orkney nor Shetland would acquire mineral rights to any of the oil & gas reserves. They would remain with the mainland.

    Sure, there should be an effort to address local issues. But due to the micro economic model the islands operate with & their dependence on the broader resources of the Scottish mainland, it is inconceivable that the residents would jeopardise their own economic prosperity just because Tavish Scott is opposed to full Scottish sovereign independence.

    It’s self serving people like Tavish Scott who help career politicians earn bad name.

  4. Roberto says:

    Why not go all the way and ask unst,bressay,foula,fair isle and all the other islands who may feel they are being hard done by the island authorities if they want independence from them.where does it end?

    1. Harald Tobermann says:

      Exactly.Nations and national boundaries are not eternal or self-evident concepts and can only be said to have been associated with liberal and progressive ideas at some point in the 19th century.

  5. Robert Graham says:

    i smell labour helped by the trusted liberals behind this the same as these councils suddenly leaving cosla just a coincidence ? and as for the nut ih aberdeen using council resources to send political propaganda in favour of a no vote why has no objection been raised to send the bill for this to the people who authorised this clear misuse of public funds

  6. fynesider2 says:

    There appears to be a fair bit of dupication within the article…

    1. fynesider2 says:

      mis-typed & no editing facility available ‘duplication’ not dupication

  7. Great bit o writin Malachy. Shetland and Orkney have a far longer and more complex relationship with Scotland than the ‘more Scandinavian than Scottish’ line of ‘reasoning’ will ever be able to accommodate. The Earl of Orkney was a signatory to the Declaration of Arbroath, at which point influence from the North and East of the North Isles would be very high. Yes, the Scots, like most outsiders, have forced unpalatable regimes on the native population in their day. But it was the United Kingdom who press ganged us in the nineteenth century, and who 100 years ago sent as many of the able bodied men as they could to cold, brutal and pointless deaths. I grew up in Shetland and have always supported Scottish Independence. And I’m not alone

  8. Brian McGraw says:

    Even if the Isles wanted independence from Scotland, it wouldn’t make any difference to my decison to vote YES. Oil or no oil, Scotland will be better off in charge of its own destiny – it doesn’t hurt all the other small nations who don’t have significant oil resources

  9. Doug says:

    I think the important point is whether the rest of the Scottish electorate is aware of the facts, or will believe there is:
    1. a very real chance that the Islands will elect to remain UK, and
    2. that the oil will belong to the islands (ignoring the international law regarding enclaves).

    Just another part of the Project Fear superstructure creating a view that Scotland could never go it alone.

  10. Capella says:

    Re blatant attempts of unionists to derail independence – the Heath government in the 1970s created the Scottish Regions, to replace the former Counties, as a method of stalling the demand for greater autonomy. But the large Regions failed to provide local democratic control which at least the town and county councils had provided (imperfectly perhaps). The hasty addition of Community Councils without any executive power, was a last minute sop to democratic principles. Then the 1990s Major government decided to disband the large Regional Authorities which had become bastions of anti-Tory power, and replace them with the unitary authorities thus finally wiping out all traditional connections with the ancient counties.
    As Lesley Riddoch points out, we are left with huge populations represented by distant and unapproachable councils. An enormous and unique democratic deficit. I would favour smaller units, perhaps restoring the county structure and with parish sized units so that we can all be reasonably involved in local decision making.

  11. DougtheDug says:

    Funny isn’t it? Demands for Shetland/Orkney Home Rule/independence are always from the most unionist members of society and only ever appear when Scottish independence starts gaining ground.

    It appears to be that independence for Shetland is good if Scottish independence looks likely but independence for Shetland is bad if the Union is strong.

  12. bringiton says:

    The Petition claims as part of it’s justification that the Northern and Western Isles were part of Norway which conveniently ignores the fact that much of mainland Northern Scotland was in the same situation around the time of Jarl Thorfinn.
    The people who are presenting this case will have to go through the same democratic process as has happened with the Scottish one.
    They will have to elect a political party with a mandate to seek independence from Scotland (they are part of Scotland and not rUK) and then get agreement from Holyrood to hold a referendum on that basis.
    Submitting a petition is an attemot to circumvent the democratic process and appears to be aimed at influencing the referendum in Scotland as a whole without consulting the people of the islands.
    If the people of the islands want greater democracy,then allowing a few individuals to impose policy on them in this way is not a good start.
    Who is Michael Lamont (I believe responsible for submitting the document)?
    Any relation to the discredited Norman ?

    1. Joan Mardy says:

      Submitting a petition is an attemot to circumvent the democratic process

      I can’t believe I am reading such statements.

      Have you got a problem with citizens petitioning the Scottish Parliament? Do you realise that the process of getting an online petition published by Parliament involves submitting a draft, having the draft scrutinised by parliamentary clerks, and then working with those clerks to get it into proper shape?

      If petitioning parliament isn’t part of the democratic process, what is?

  13. James Coleman says:

    This nonsense is incomer driven and hasn’t got any chance of ever being implemented. The same people also haven’t a clue about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There is little doubt that if they ever gained Independence the Northern Isles whether Shetland or Orkney and all of the Hebrides would be enclaves within Scottish Territorial Waters and would then have Territorial Waters of a mere 12 nautical miles; and currently there is no oil within those limits.
    I cannot believe that these Island communities would be prepared to give up the expected benefits to be gained if Scotland becomes Independent, including the loss of all oil jobs and benefits nearby, for the ‘jam never’ promises of the Westminster Government or some form of impecunious Independence. But if they do then I bid them fare thee well.

    1. David Smillie says:

      Correct James. The 12 mile limit would also have a devastating effect on Shetland’s important fishing industry.

      1. Joan Mardy says:

        If you think people are going to buy the line that Shetland will lose its economy if it leaves Scotland, you must think they are very stupid.

        Scotland will lose 67% of its oil if it goes independent and Shetland stays in the UK.

    2. Joan Mardy says:

      “Incomer driven” indeed! Enough of battles against incomers. How about what’s best for Shetland? And you are the one who hasn’t got a clue about UNCLOS.

      Do you even know the difference between an exclusive economic zone and territorial waters? Outside of Scotland, Shetland wouldn’t be in Scotland’s “territorial waters”. I suggest you look stuff up before typing.

      1. Martin says:

        You’re a cat’s paw if you believe that Joan. This is merely the British empire doing what they know best. Divide and Rule. Don’t make the same mistake Ireland and India made.

        And you probably should research things before you post. Shetland sits on the Continental shelf of the UK, just as Mann does. Same rules apply. No exceptions. The British like to claim things at sea that aren’t theirs from time to time, but they usually get swatted back, like with Rockall.

        By the way, Is anyone else reminded of that South Park episode where the “natives” (aka incomers) of Hawaii, having long ago suppressed the original natives, declare war on the rest of the USA because they think they’re mistreated? That’s what this debacle comes across as people outside the bubble

  14. arne b. dyrøy says:

    We would love to welcome Shetland and Orkneys back to Norway. They are our brothers and sisters by blood.

    1. Robert Peffers says:

      Div ye jalouse whit the wirds, “Wir aa Jock Tamson’s Bairns”, owersets intil, Arne? Noo the hale kintra o Scotland micht nae aa spak wir ain tune o wir ain leid bit aiblins the Orkney Norn haes mair nor becam Orkney Scots noo.

  15. Iain says:

    ‘Orcadians and Shetlanders are certainly the most reluctantly Scottish of Scots’?

    The 2011 census showed that there was a majority in both Orkney and Shetland who considered themselves to be ‘Scottish only’ rather than ‘Scottish and British’ or ‘British’.

  16. Brian Powell says:

    There is also the fact that the islands were inhabited for 5000plus years before the Norse arrived by peoples from what is modern day Scotland. It was taken under official Norse control because the raiders there started attacking the coast of their own country.
    Interesting on genetics, more recent research showed the people in Bergen and along the west coast of Norway are of Dutch and German origin.
    There are no simple stories.

    1. arne b. dyrøy says:

      True that. Im from the west coast of Norway. I’ve got spanish, dutch, celtic and nordic blood in my veins. As a westcoast norwegian i’m progressive, and i hope for a strong north sea region with a free Scotland as a participant.

  17. Hortense says:

    I’m just back from Althing debate on Shetland. Before debate it was 58 yes 57 no 35 undecided, post debate 70 yes 38 no 22 undecided. Carmichael’s debating not improved any.

  18. Catrìona says:

    I was wondering how long it would take for this one to pop up. I remember Ian Sproat (a Tory who fled to south east England eventually) trying to set up a campaign to have Aberdeen remain undevolved if there had been a Yes vote in 1979. There was. I suppose Britnats have been invigorated recently by events in Crimea. How they must with they had a Putin among the alliance of Lamont, Davidson and whatever the Liberal’s name is.

  19. Will McEwan says:

    Result of the Hustings in Shetland tonight .
    Start of meeting – YES 58 NO 57 Undecided 31
    End of meeting YES 70 NO 48 Undecided 22
    Scottish Secretary of State Alistair Carmichael got tanked on his own patch by Mike Mackenzie MSP

    1. James Coleman says:

      That’s the way to do it!

  20. Big Jock says:

    Tavish Scott is a mischief maker.Let’s be clear about this.Shetland and Orkney have never been sovereign independent nations.So there is no historical statement of nationhood.As far as I am concerned we may as well be talking about Mull or Skye.The nation is still Scotland of which they are part of.The referendum is about Scottish independence and nothing other than that.So if the majority of people say no in Shetland but yes in Scotland are they going to ask London to send in the troops to defend them from Scotland…remember the 6 counties in N Eire! The most twisted and sinister thing about Tavish is that he wants to stop Scotland from self determination at any cost.Seriously do the good people of Shetland want to be run from London rather than Edinburgh.Its just plain stupid.If an independent Scotland wants to devolve power to the isles later on then that bridge can be crossed.But for heavens sake let’s get control back from London first.Any devolution later on would not be the same as Wales and Scotland is at the moment.Scotland is a nation but Orkney is an island within a nation..there is a difference.In actual fact if the dowry for Queen Margaret was ever to be paid by Norway.Norway could reclaim Orkney.Historically it was mortgaged in lieu of the dowry.Anyway these kind of discussions are just in order to try and divide and rule.Its the oldest trick in the book and the Brits card of choice when they are losing the fight.

  21. evan says:

    If the geopolitical situation in the world does not change, next year will be the first year in two-hundred and fifty years that british soldiers will not be fighting abroad bringing “democracy and civilisation” to someone else!!!

    Forget all the propaganda!!! Just become independent so Scotland can stop supplying soldiers to english!!!
    The rest of the world would appreciate you Scots very much for that!!!

    1. hektorsmum says:

      You Scots, Evan. Well we would have rather been at peace over the last 250 years. Most of our soldiers went to war to put food on the table back at home. I know my Dad was a boy soldier, right before the advent of World War 2. It says much about this Union that there are still young men putting their lives on the line for the same reason, either join the Army/Navy or Air Force as my youngest uncle did at 17 or remain unemployed.

  22. Joan Mardy says:

    How about we leave behind what happened in past centuries and let islanders determine the status of their islands in a referendum.

    People living outside the islands are welcome to support us having that right: they are welcome to sign the petition for islands referenda, which is here.

    If any islanders don’t want to have that chance, then they should maybe stop being so pessimistic about their neighbours 🙂 and in any case they can abstain in the Shetland referendum if they wish.

    And there is no “rule” which says 50000 signatures are needed before a petition will get parliamentary time. Maybe you can correct that, Malachy?

  23. Lochside says:

    I used to go out with a girl from Lerwick and knew many students at Aberdeen Uni from the Northern Isles. Never did she or they regard themselves anything other than Islanders first and Scots second. But British? never! The Shetland dialect has a Norse accent but is full of auld Scots words. Genetically, they are marginally Scottish (refer to Moffat’s latest DNA research). But most importantly, they have always primarily come to Scottish Universities, live by Scottish law, support Scottish sporting teams.

    Shetland, like Argyll, over the last 40 years, has seen a steady stream of English people escaping the ‘rat race.’ Most have settled amicably and contributed to the communities. However, what is sometimes the case, unlike other nationalities who arrive, a minority do not appear to accept that Scotland is a nation, with separate regions, distinct, and with different traditions. These individuals are, in my experience, hostile to Scottish independence and exhibit this by supporting ridiculous assertions that e.g. Shetland and Orkney should secede from an independent Scotland. Suggest to them that England could return the originally French Channel Isles to their ‘home’ is treated, correctly, with disdain.

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