Are LibDems attempting to create fear and panic over constitutional future of Northern Isles?

Former LibDem leader in Scotland Tavish Scott argues that Orkney and
Shetland may split from Scotland after independence

Scottish newsAre LibDems attempting to create fear and panic over constitutional future of Northern Isles?

by Emily Badiozzaman

It has been reported that voters in Orkney and Shetland have expressed no fears about the prospect of an independent Scotland let alone have the intention of splitting and remaining within the rest of the UK after independence. 

It appears that there is no real evidence to substantiate LibDem claims to the contrary raising concerns that they are deliberately misrepresenting the islanders in order to manufacture fear and panic over Scotland’s constitutional debate out of political self-interest.

Alistair Carmichael, the Northern Isles' MP, has insisted that most Orcadians and Shetlanders are opposed to independence and very few support the independence referendum scheduled for 2014. He has maintained that the constitutional concern in the Orkney and Shetland islands has always been about “the centralisation of government” and the islands’ voters should have the right to decide their own future in the independence referendum.

Mr Carmichael appears to be driving a localism agenda by stressing that what was now needed on the islands was a community-based discussion similar to that which took place across Scotland in the 1990s with the establishment of the Constitutional Convention. However there appears to be no evidence of a groundswell of opinion on the islands for such a move.

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In a response to the UK government’s consultation on the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future in March 2012, fellow MSPs Tavish Scott (former Scottish leader) and Liam McArthur from the Liberal Democrats argued that “the last thing the northern isles want is to be ruled by Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers”, echoing the voice of Jo Grimond, a former liberal leader and MP for Orkney and Shetland in the 1970s.

The MSPs concluded in their paper that there are three options open to the islands in the current constitutional debate; to retain their current constitutional position within the UK and as part of Scotland but negotiate additional responsibility over key public sector areas, enhanced powers or independence from Scotland if Scotland were to vote for independence but the Northern isles voted no or enhanced constitutional and tax status within the UK.

Local Opinion

Scottish Times spoke to Paul Riddell, editor of the Shetland Times, who explains that “Mr Scott’s decision to stand down as leader has placed him in a marginal position in Scottish politics. It also allows him to make mischief as only opposition politicians can do.”

Mr Riddell describes Mr Scott's comments as "political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position", saying:

"Of course Mr Scott should be pushing for the best possible deal for Shetland, but he says he does not believe that Scotland, never mind Shetland, will vote for independence, so this is surely political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position."

Stirring it up

This initiative by the LibDem MSPs will have an effect on the referendum campaign by creating uncertainty over the ‘yes’ campaign’s economic case for independence as the Northern Isles' oil and gas, estimated to be around 30 percent of total Scottish reserves, provides government income of £1.5bn a year.

Were the theoretical situation to arise and the Northern Isles voted to remain as a part of the Union, the withdrawal of its reserves would have a substantial impact on a newly-independent Scotland’s fiscal position. As such there is very obvious reasons as to why LibDem politicians would be motivated to exaggerate the likelihood of such an event.

Defending the SNP’s position on the hypothetical condition, Angus MacNeil, the SNP’s rural affairs spokesman, said that “a fair fraction of oil” would be retained by Shetland and Orkney if they remained a part of the UK.

In terms of a newly-independent Scotland’s economic situation, should the Northern Isles remain in the UK, Mr MacNeil said that it was “absolutely wrong” that the SNP’s economic case for separation collapses without the islands’ natural resources. He added, “when you look at countries the size of Scotland with no oil, you see them thriving. Switzerland is a great example.”

On the general topic of remaining as part of the UK, Mr MacNeil said that Shetland and Orkney would be permitted to remain part of the UK regardless of the referendum result “if there was a big enough drive for self-determination” among their residents. However, it is unclear whether there is significant public support for said self-determination.

Another benefit, for Unionism, of manufacturing discontent on the islands would be in portraying an image of a splintering Scotland following independence thus creating an atmosphere of fear and panic in which Scots would be too scared to vote ‘yes’.

However, the evidence from the islands themselves suggests that the LibDems are more likely to be scaremongering over what they claim is a centralisation of power under First Minister Alex Salmond.

It is, for example, unlikely that Westminster would grant Orkney and Shetland their own devolved powers should they remain as part of the UK or if the “centralised power” would simply switch from Edinburgh to London.

Despite the insinuation that Scottish independence is unpopular in the Northern Isles, there has been a change in electoral behaviour and trends which saw an increase in SNP popularity. In the most recent elections in Orkney, the votes for the SNP rose from 18.9 percent in 2007 to 25.2 percent in 2011. The electoral trend appears to contradict the notion that the islanders are increasingly hostile to the Nationalist government and Holyrood.

Scots voters deserve better

Today, an SNP member for the Highlands and Islands, Jean Urquhart, responded to Mr Carmichael’s comments by stating that the Isles would benefit more in an independent Scotland than under Westminster rule.

SNP Councillor Jean Urquhart claimed that Mr Carmichael’s comments were reflective of “just how much Westminster MPs live in cloud cuckoo-land” and urged “Alistair Carmichael and his Conservative cronies in Westminster to stop playing games and to have a mature and sensible discussion on the benefits that Scottish independence will have for all communities across the country.”

Islanders and bemused onlookers beyond might be forgiven for viewing the remarks from both sides as dragging an important debate about Scottish independence into the gutter. What is clear is that everyone will lose if politicians attempt to undermine a genuine debate in the Northern Isles by turning discussions into political bickering where voters will switch off and view politicians with contempt.

Public opinion in the Northern Isles has not seen a substantial amount of support on either side of the debate. It is increasingly likely that the comments from the LibDem party are an effort to instigate discontent within the local community, though it appears to be to no avail as of yet. There has not been a strong grassroots independence movement since the Shetland movement in the 1980s and 1990s and it does not appear that there is going to be in the near future.



Scottish News News Scotland

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Showing 4 reactions

commented 2012-08-08 05:54:44 +0100 · Flag
The Northern Isles simply cannot “remain” in the UK without Scotland. They were part of Scotland when the Union was formed, so if Scotland leaves, they leave.

Whether they subsequently decide to secede from Scotland and renegotiate a union with rUK is entirely up to them, but it seems a bit far-fetched to me. Why would being governed from London be preferable to being governed from Edinburgh?
commented 2012-08-07 20:09:26 +0100 · Flag
The Northern isles along with much of North and West Scotland used to be ruled by Norway before being assimilated into the state of Scotland.
At no time has there been any connection between England and the isles so the idea that should the islanders reject Scottish independence,they would wish to be ruled by an English government in London has no credibility and no historical or cultural precedent.
The purpose of this ridiculous argument is to sow doubt in the minds of the majority of Scots who might vote Yes in the referendum.Scott and his friends truly do not have the interests of their constituents at heart and simply see their lucrative careers coming to an end.
Hell hath no fury than a politician faced with redundancy.
commented 2012-08-07 16:29:48 +0100 · Flag
With the LibDems on the electoral road to oblivion they have to come up with something that gets attention. Hardline BritNats and their BritScot quislings will try to run with it for its Daily Mail headline (oil) grabbing potential. But this is a non-starter. I am sure it is not beyond the wit of any future administration to go for a Faroes type arrangement for Orkney/Shetland if the people wanted it. Such a constitutional regime would be more likely to come from Edinburgh than London. Couldn’t imagine future PM Johnson being greatly exercised by “sub-arctic” dependencies and their special needs. Besides this is straying into dangerous international waters; las Malvinas, Gibraltar…..
published this page in News 2012-08-07 14:50:59 +0100