The emerging exploration of independence from the UK and Scotland by the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, now joined in a trinity by the Western Isles, leaves the SNP in a serious bind.
A movement founded on the right to self-determination and the political philosophy of keeping power close to home is staring blankly at a cluster of islands becoming assertive of their own rights and interests in just such a position.
The SNP/Scottish Government cannot honourably campaign for Scotland’s right to independence while telling the Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles ‘Don’t do as we do. Do as we say’.
The serious difficulty for the SNP and the Independence campaign in this situation is not just philosophical. It is financial.
Much of the North Sea oil asset is in Shetland waters – and the major technological and production developments to come are in the waters west of Shetland.
The Orkney and Shetland Isles are a natural pair in many ways. They share a Nordic not a Celtic heritage. They are stoutly unionist in their politics, together contributing the Liberal Democrats only two constituency seats in the Scottish Parliament; and with Orkney the seat of two UK national party leaders, Jo Grimond and Jim Wallace.
If they chose separation from Scotland, they might align to the UK and are known to be interested in, amongst other models, the ‘Crown Dependency’ of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
The self governing status achieved by Finland’s Aland Islands and by Denmark’s Faeroes has stimulated the appetite in the Northern Isles for running their own show.
The odd man out in the new trinity is the Western Isles – culturally Gaelic not Nordic and, economically speaking, a basket case, with the flattest flat-lining local economy in Scotland financed annually by substantial additional assistance from the Scottish Government’s Grant Aided Expenditure [GAE] ‘flooring’ mechanism.
Shetland has oil, with more to come. Orkney can bring marine energy research and development potential to the table – alongside it’s stunning archaeological and naval heritage. Shetland and the Western Isles have significant archaeological heritages of their own to support tourism development.
If the three island archipelagos can make a go of it, a major beneficiary would be the economically weakest of the three, the Western Isles, which would effectively be supported by Shetland rather than by Scotland, as at present.
But this threesome is definitely viable.
If they went for the Crown Dependency model, they could use the GBP, they could attract additional revenues as a tax haven – and with Norway so close to Shetland, they could be attractive in this facility eastwards as well as southwards.
Not being in the EU would be of little account as, independent of it, they would control their own fisheries. They would lose EU Common Agricultural Policy funding but their potential overall financial position would be very healthy, with their small populations and their massive assets.
The 2011 mid year population figures showed the Orkney Isles with 20,100; the Shetland Isles with 22,210; and the Western Isles with 28, 080.
The proof of being consciously between a rock and a hard place was in a television interview given by Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney, at Lerwick yesterday. Mr Swinney is in Shetland to play goalkeeper at a convention of the three island groups which starts today. The independence proposition is on the agenda.
Mr Swinney was, looked and sounded uncomfortable on the question – unable to see off the move without seeming two-faced and equally unable to show any enthusiasm for it.
All he could manage was to say that the Scottish Government believed in local decision making and was ‘open to dialogue’ with communities on how this might be achieved.
Politically, this is a case of what happens once the political map seems open to change. No single state controls all of the resulting changes but the sense of a relaxing of traditional barriers releases a spectrum of ambitions.
An immediate question is, if these ambitions in the Northern and Western Isles harden up – as is likely, how – strategically – might they vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum?
An independent Scotland could not afford to let them go, whatever the political contradictions of obstruction.
The UK is in a position where, if it were to cede geographical allocations of the North Sea, it does not matter if it cedes the territory to one or to two inheritor states.
A continuing Union is most likely to move to a de facto form of federalism after the 2014 referendum – in which case there is no reason why the Northern Isles or a Northern and Western Isles combo should not be a new element in such an arrangement.
And that really would be the end of a viably independent rScotland.
Interesting times. The driving seat has just moved northwards.