Purposeful Opportunists: Our Islands, Our Future

Published: 17 October 2013
In a previous blog, James Mitchell referred to three categories of issues and strategies as they relate to the referendum: CORE, INSULATION and INSINUATION.  By insinuation, we mean attempts by public and private interest, acting as purposeful opportunists, to insinuate interests and issues into the referendum debate.
One of the most significant examples of INSINUATION by ‘purposeful opportunists’ in the referendum debate has been an initiative launched by Scotland’s three island councils: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council.  It began with a conversation between the leaders of the three islands councils in which it was agreed that the referendum offered an opportunity to raise some matters of common concern.  A list of issues was drawn up and a campaign was born.  Our Islands, Our Future (Ar n-Eileanan – Ri teachd) was officially launched on 13 June 2013 with a joint position statement.
Scotland’s three Islands Councils – Shetland, Orkney, and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar representing the Western Isles, have agreed to work together in a programme of positive engagement to ensure that whatever happens over the next two or three years in relation to the constitution of Scotland the position and needs of island areas are adequately taken into account and the particular nature of Scotland’s three main islands’ areas acknowledged and recognised. 
Three core areas were identified and work has been done jointly by the councils to consider options, draw on evidence and examples of islands’ governance beyond the UK:
  • Marine Resources and Energy Growth 
  • Constitutional Status and Public Sector Change 
  • Economic Drivers and Island Wellbeing 
The demands being made include control of the sea bed around the islands, channelling revenues to the islands currently paid to the Crown Estates; new grid connections to the Scottish mainland; new fiscal arrangements for the islands and recognition of the status of the islands in any new Scottish constitutional settlement and within the European Governance Framework.   What they propose would lead to a more asymmetrical system of local governance.  These demands span current devolved and retained matters ensuring that this campaign is not focused on one side of the debate.
This is not the first occasion when Scottish islands have insinuated themselves into a ‘constitutional moment’.  In the early 1970s, Shetland proved adept in winning concessions from the UK Government and the oil companies.  Indeed, there have been suggestions that Shetland proved more adept in negotiating with oil companies than the UK.
The incoming Conservative Government in 1979 established a committee that recommended that opportunities should be taken ‘whenever possible to consolidate, develop and extend the powers of Island Councils in a continuing process of development in the local government of the islands’ and applications of legislation should take account of islands’ variation.
An Islands Committee was established at the first meeting of the Executive of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, during a later constitutional moment, to ‘further consider the possible future relationship between the Islands councils and a Scottish Parliament’.  What emerged from this was the idea that the Islands were ‘sufficiently unique from the rest of Scotland as to warrant separate consideration in any proposals’.  The Convention supported a ‘system of evolutionary devolution… not dissimilar to the method whereby the Faroe Islands obtained and further developed  a degree of local autonomy while at the same time remaining an integral part of Denmark’.
It was argued that the Islands suffered from ‘inappropriate legislation’: blanket legislation and regulations emanating from central government and the EEC often failed to take account of the unique nature of the island communities.  It was argued that successive governments had been unsympathetic to requests from the Island councils to recognize the detrimental effect of inappropriate legislation on the island communities.  Examples of this were given:
  1. Variation in rating legislation which had a severe impact on Orkney and Shetland local authority finances because of the high proportion of rate income derived from oil terminals.
  2. Capital spending constraints applied to “oil monies” restricting strategic use of such funds in development of the indigenous economy in Orkney and Shetland.
  3. Failure to implement “local Fisheries Management Schemes” around the islands as an integral part of the Common Fisheries Policy.
  4. The then proposed legislation for the introduction of a Uniform Business Rate was thought likely to be ‘beneficial to businesses in Scottish industrial areas’ but ‘extremely damaging to the Isles’.
One of the first demands had been separate representation for Orkney and Shetland in the Scottish Parliament.  There were demands for special consideration of the ‘ultra-peripherality’ of the Islands and recognition of what were seen as the islands’ financial needs.  The only group that managed to insinuate itself into the Convention debates as successfully were those representing women’s rights.  Today’s constitutional moment is an opportunity to raise again the idea of ‘evolutionary devolution’ as there has in the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Government was first to respond to the Islands’ campaign.  First Minister Salmond issued the ‘Lerwick Declaration’ in July, establishing an Island Areas Ministerial Working Group which met for the first time at the end of August.  Within a month of the Lerwick Declaration, Michael Moore, Secretary of State at the Scotland Office, announced that he would meet with the leaders of the three islands councils.  Mr Moore was due to meet the leaders this Autumn.  The appointment of Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, as Secretary of State for Scotland should enhance the islands’ prospects of winning concessions from London though reports anticipating a more adversarial style may have create challenges for the campaign.
There are a number of key features of the campaign:
  • The Islands are not taking sides in the referendum but challenging each side to outline plans for the islands under each constitutional scenario.  The danger for ‘purposeful opportunists’ is that they are dragged into a highly adversarial constitutional debate.  This may have been enhanced with the appointment of Alistair Carmichael as Secretary for Scotland.
  • The demands are reasonably concrete, evading the possibility of commitments from either or both sides to express support in the kind of warm words exemplified in ‘evolutionary devolution’.  A mistake made by local government interests in the past was to win vague commitments that proved meaningless.  Shetland’s experience teaches us that demands need to be clear and concrete.
  • The islands’ demands are relevant regardless of the outcome of the referendum and involve both UK and Scottish Governments having to make concessions but the opportunity available to the Islands is time-limited.  They will need to pin down commitments before the referendum.
  • As became evident at a very well attended conference in Kirkwall in late September, both sides and governments are highly sensitive to the demands made by the islands.  The demands made by the islands parallel the debate on Scotland’s place within the UK: asymmetry; identity; equity; resources and representation.
  • The problem in such insinuation is that it might favour the strong, those capable of organising themselves to put pressure on both sides in the debate.  The three Island Councils, but especially Shetland, are uniquely placed to make demands.  They are able to mobilise support not least because of North Sea oil.  Other island communities in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides are excluded from this campaign though may find that they benefit from some commitments made to the three councils.
Professor James Mitchell holds an ESRC Scotland Fellowship and is based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at Edinburgh University.  His book, The Scottish Question will be published in 2014 by Oxford University Press. 

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