This is our island, keep swimming
Here in Shetland a new campaign group has been formed, with the aim of gaining autonomy for the islands. The group, Wir Shetland, was launched on 14 October and its website lays out guiding principles of opposition to Scottish independence and the European Union, and to a belief in self-governance for Shetland. Wir Shetland don’t want Shetland to be an independent country, but they see the islands as being better off if they had similar status to that of the Falklands. Becoming a British Overseas Territory, so the group argues, will ‘secure the legal rights of Shetland residents, businesses and similar bodies,’ and allow islanders ‘to develop trade and cultural links between Shetland and her political and geographic neighbours’. Exactly how the legal rights of Shetlanders are currently under threat isn’t very clear, but the group’s members see Shetland as being so distinct – culturally, historically, economically – that the only way ahead is to break away from national government and run things locally.
On the face of it, Wir Shetland might seem to be empowering islanders to take control of their own destiny. Who better to run a place than the people who live there? But it’s telling that, so far, the only political party to come out in favour of the group is the Tories. They, of course, love the idea of groups like this, because they don’t really believe the national government should do anything for anybody. And if the proles are busy arguing about filling potholes or funding trampoline lessons, then malevolent creeps like George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt can get on with the important business of selling public assets to their rich pals at knockdown prices. Anything that means people don’t think about issues that are actually important – poverty, inequality, the hegemony of neoliberal economics – is bound to get the seal of approval from the Conservatives.
It’s interesting to see the right – and Wir Shetland is firmly in UKIP-type territory – employing some of the methods and rhetoric of the progressive left. Like many groups which emerged before and after the Referendum, they are a grassroots campaign, active on social media, and hoping to encourage significant political change. They speak about local democracy, local rights and freedoms, about using what they see as local assets (like oil) for the benefit of local people, and about the damage done by a distant governmental machine that doesn’t understand local particularities.
It’s not hard to make parallels between this kind of thing and much of what was said last year. But groups like Radical Independence and the Scottish Left Project have come into being because there is an urgent need for radical change to the way Scotland is owned and operated. A country where a tiny number of rich people own a huge portion of the land is not a fair society. A country where the way people vote doesn’t influence the government they get is not a fair society. Pro-indy groups have emerged to think about ways out of these problems. A group like Wir Shetland doesn’t have a radical agenda. What they want is to get as much as they can for the islands and not worry about anybody south of Fair Isle. It isn’t much of a program. Cruel benefit cuts, brutal fitness-to-work assessments, and reactionary curbs on union activity will all continue, even if Shetland leaves the EU, gets control of Crown Estate assets in the isles, and establishes a 200 mile economic zone around the archipelago.
How long the group lasts is anybody’s guess, but I suspect they might gain some support in the run-up to the European Union referendum. Anti-EU sentiment will no doubt be encouraged by right-wingers and most of the mainstream media, and Wir Shetland’s principles will sit pretty comfortably with much of the bile that gets whipped up. The EU is seen by the British right (and this is aside from basic Daily Mail racism) as interfering with the laws and rights of a sovereign nation, and as costing a fortune which would be better spent at home. Much of what Nigel Farage and guys like him say about the EU is easy to laugh off – stuff about laws which determine the correct bend in a banana, and so on – but the referendum does present a conundrum for anybody on the left in this country. If you believe in progressive, egalitarian change, should you vote to stay in Europe or leave?
The idea that the EU can enable progressive, egalitarian change is thrown into extreme doubt when you look at the recent treatment of Greece. The imposition of a particular economic model was severe, allowing no room whatsoever for any alternative thinking that the elected Greek representatives came up with. The EU insisted, as George Osborne does whenever he gets the chance, that there is no alternative to low public spending, minimal business regulation and low taxes. Greece might not have wanted that kind of economic model (they actually voted against it in a referendum), but that economic model is exactly what they got.
Like lots of people on the left, I find myself instinctively in favour of continental co-operation, of seeing ourselves as Europeans rather than retreating into a little-islander fastness where we can stick a hand through the bars and wave two fingers at the French. But how can you vote against the neoliberal EU club when it means being on the same side (albeit on the other wing) as UKIP goons like Godfrey Bloom or Roger Helmer? How does anybody with even marginally leftist politics find a way to place themselves in the European Referendum?
As I say, it’s a conundrum, neither side of which is very appealing. On the one side is the braying, hateful British right wing, and on the other is a small group of politicians who think that austerity is unavoidable for the successful running of an economy. In the Scottish Referendum the progressive left was unanimously on the Yes side, but there isn’t such a straightforward position to adopt in the European vote. A Socialist Scotland, independent of Westminster and the EU, isn’t on the agenda, so what does anybody who isn’t an austerity fan or a racist do? As the ballot gets closer it’ll be interesting to see what thinking emerges around the question. The one thing I’m sure of is that drawing a circle around Shetland and telling everybody else to get to fuck isn’t the answer we need.