Talk of Shetland independence is wide of the mark

If some of this morning’s more excitable headlines are to be believed, North Ronaldsay is soon to become the most northerly outpost of Scotland and the UK.

Friday, 11th September 2020, 12:23 pm
The motion passed by councillors on Scotland's northermost local authority is designed to explore extra powers, not full-blown independence.

Talk of Shetland striking it out alone is neither new nor likely. By virtue of geography, history, and a unique, vibrant culture, the archipelago is part of Scotland, but its centuries-old ties to Denmark and Norway continue to shape its way of life. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The nuances of this are not always easy for policymakers in Edinburgh to understand, let alone their counterparts in London, but the prospects of Shetland becoming independent from Scotland - a scenario breathlessly reported in the national press - are slim to non existent.

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Some of the coverage even referred to the archipelago as the ‘Shetlands’, a cardinal sin which does little to endear soothmoothers to islanders frustrated at how their way of life is represented.

This grating dissatisfaction extends beyond the media. Many in Shetland feel isolated from the decision-making processes at Holyrood and Westminster. After all, the island chain lies closer to Oslo than it does London. Yet putting two and two together and surmising the answer to be a desire for independence fundamentally misunderstands the situation.

The motion passed this week by 18 votes to two among the members of Shetland Islands Council notes that in order to realise its full potential, the local authority should begin exploring options for achieving “financial and political self-determination.”

The language is important. This is not about independence, but greater powers. Steven Coutts, the council leader, has indicated a preference for tax-raising levers and a legislative assembly in Lerwick.

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"We can sit back and continue to see our ability to deliver outcomes diminished or we can do something about it,” he explained. “We need all the political and financial levers we can muster and it is right we begin work to explore how we achieve them."

While identity is a factor at play, the real drivers are practical and pragmatic. The widely hailed Islands (Scotland) Act was welcomed as a buttress against continued decentralisation, but two years on, some officials in Shetland consider its achievements to be strictly symbolic.

There is also disquiet around the issue of funding of the inter-island ferries service, a vital lifeline and economic driver. The council is forced to pay more than any other local authority to maintain these links, and it argues that the Scottish Government can do more - much more - in the form of grant funding.

That particular battle has been raging for several years now, and having passed the motion, the council knows it is in a better position to obtain an audience with ministers both in Edinburgh and London, and lay out their demands.

It may not sound as exotic or exciting as the idea of a reconvened Althing - a historic Norse assembly - in Tingwall, but at a time of constitutional upheaval and febrile political debate, nuance is often the first casualty.

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