Nordic lessons in island autonomy - Lesley Riddoch

What do the folk of the Northern Isles really want?

Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:30 am
Other parts of Scotland don’t have the connection, identity or sense of their own capacity of island life
Other parts of Scotland don’t have the connection, identity or sense of their own capacity of island life

That has quickly become a side issue as both “sides” in the independence debate weaponise the islanders’ demands for greater autonomy.

Island independence from a “Bolshevist” Scottish Government – shrieked Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer this weekend. Rubbish, said some SNP supporters, insisting that votes to explore Crown Dependency status on Shetland and Orkney are just the latest rumblings from autonomy movements that have never won control of either council, let alone a seat at Holyrood or Westminster.

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Both sides should tak tent. Even if a unilateral declaration of independence is not on the menu, neither is meekly backing down or trying to look excited about the limited new powers dangled in the Scottish Government’s Islands Bill. Lewis resident and former energy minister Brian Wilson observed on Saturday: “Devolution comes to a grinding halt once it reaches Edinburgh.” Agreed.

But that grinding halt also happened on Labour’s watch. And despite occasional opportunistic flourishes by the likes of Douglas Ross, no party (bar the Greens) has any real plan to reverse the central control and top-down governance that are commonplace in Scotland and Britain.

But if everyone else can thole living in councils 17 times larger than the EU average with far less local power, why can’t islanders? Put briefly, because they are remote, small, lithe and well-connected enough to do far better.

In Saturday’s Scotsman, Brian Wilson recalled opening EMEC on Orkney in 2004. The pioneering marine energy centre has indeed transformed island life. But I’ll bet no-one predicted back then that all the island chains would still be waiting for UK government approved subsea cables to connect with the National Grid.

By contrast, Danish Samsøe and Swedish Gotland have several 1GW cables, generating cash to keep their island economies afloat, despite possessing only a tiny fraction of the energy resource around Orkney and Shetland. They didn’t need independence to get this level of investment. They simply needed to be normal island councils in countries with high levels of internal devolution. Gotland decided to let Russia lay an oil pipeline in its waters, extracting enough cash and maintenance work to re-furbish its eastern port of Slite and commission a hydrogen-fuelled ferry to reconnect with its East European neighbours. You could argue whether that was a good decision in light of Russia’s behaviour and the climate crisis. But it was Gotland’s decision – not Stockholm’s. And throughout the Nordic nations that’s fairly normal.

Councils don’t just have clout – they have cash. In Sweden, citizens earning less than £35,000 per annum don’t pay any income tax to central government – they pay it all to local councils, leaving the Riksdag to be financed by corporation tax and higher rate tax payers. Why? The lion’s share of services are delivered locally, so the Swedes would ask why taxes should go anywhere else.

Times were that few Scots knew any of this. But times have changed. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are aware they have the small scale of Nordic municipalities but none of their autonomy, levers or decision-making powers. No wonder they want more.

Shetland is also very conscious of the freedoms enjoyed by its second nearest neighbour, the Faroes. In 1944 Iceland declared independence while “Mother” Denmark was occupied by Germany. When a Faroese referendum produced a 50.7 per cent Yes vote two years later, the Danes lost no time in offering the islanders the world’s most powerfully devolved parliament instead. Now the Løgting has 33 MPs who represent 55,000 people on 18 islands, 200 miles north-west of the Scottish mainland. And that’s not all. The Faroes has 30 ultra-local councils, while Scotland (with 100 times more people) has just 32. The Løgting raises taxes and doesn’t need permission from Denmark to create new ones. It controls key areas of the economy like energy, has introduced the Faroese language in schools, created its own university, a nightly TV news bulletin and a full daytime schedule on Radio Faroes. The government-backed Smyril ferry company sails to Iceland and Denmark (Scotland currently has no international ferry links; both Shetland and Orkney are unhappy with Scottish Government-selected ferry operators and their prices.) Atlantic Airways (also government-owned) has three aircraft connecting locals with Iceland, Denmark and Edinburgh (the Edinburgh-Torshavn flight is quicker than Edinburgh-Shetland because the Faroese aircraft are more powerful). The Faroese have the world’s fastest mobile broadband and have bid to connect Orkney and Shetland too – in vain.

Superfast broadband extends to the edge of the Faroes’ 200-mile fishing limit – and hard-won control over fisheries is the main reason the Faroese remained outside the European Union in 1972 when Denmark joined. They were able to opt out because the Løgting has had the power to sign international treaties since 1946.

Why wouldn’t the Shetland folk look enviously at all of this? Why wouldn’t every island chain? The population of the Western Isles once exceeded the barren, isolated Faroes but the latter’s population has been building steadily since 1946 while all of Scotland’s islands (and rural areas) have fallen into decline.

Some may be surprised that it’s the smallest island authorities who have started rocking the devolution boat. Larger, regional-sized councils have greater purchasing clout and more highly paid officials, but their citizens don’t have the connection, identity or sense of their own capacity that comes with island life.

So, whether the quest for a new beefier status is empty or potent, it’s welcome. It’s high time someone got seriously envious of the powers Nordic islands have enjoyed for decades and seriously angry about the raw deal meted out in Scotland by both governments.

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