In November 1977, as the Labour Government's Scotland Bill was introduced to the House of Commons, Tam Dalyell, the MP for West Lothian, issued a dire warning about the future of Britain. With the publication of his first book, Devolution: The End of Britain?
, Dalyell warned the government that 'their feverish – and quite unnecessary – anxiety to appease small yet vociferous nationalist minorities' threatened to tear Britain asunder.
For Dalyell, the creation of legislative assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff would create an irreparable fissure within the United Kingdom. Whilst it looks increasingly unlikely that the UK Government will agree to a second independence referendum any time soon, over 40 years on, some would argue that the current disunity across the United Kingdom bears out Dalyell's dire prophecy.
Whilst gallons of ink have been spilt and hours of airtime filled picking over the tensions between London and Edinburgh, last week's announcement that members of the Shetland Islands Council had voted by 18 to two to explore the possibility of 'achieving financial and political self-determination' generated a flurry of speculation that the 'Shetlands' (as one paper reported) would seek 'independence' from Scotland, in the event of a Yes vote in IndyRef2. As Martyn McLaughlin reported in The Scotsman
, the likelihood of Shetland actually becoming independent from Scotland is 'slim to non-existent' at best, despite many on the archipelago believing Holyrood and Westminster to be too far removed from the reality of island life.
Despite the mass of coverage that suggested that independence for Shetland would be the next major weather-maker in Scottish politics, one indication that this was more about a redistribution of powers than a breakaway was the support that the Council's motion received from its only SNP member. For Robbie McGregor, who stressed that ultimately it was for the people of Shetland 'to articulate what they want', the motion should not be used as a 'back door' to allow Shetland to pursue 'a relationship with what's left of the UK'.
Forty years ago, as Dalyell's book rolled off the presses in late 1977, both Orkney and Shetland were also grappling with their future status within both Scotland and the United Kingdom. As the Scotland Bill progressed through parliament, with the date for a referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly set for 1 March 1979, speculation was mounting that the islands' special circumstances could lead them to break away from mainland Scotland. As the Labour Government fought off opposition to its Assembly, which would sit in the Old Royal High School in Edinburgh, Magnus Magnusson suggested that the 'rather indefinable quality' that makes the Northern Isles unique was at risk, as North Sea Oil and devolution began to threaten the 'Shetland way of life'.
In his introduction to Island Futures
, a collection of essays about Shetland and devolution edited by Shetland's foremost Nordic scholar, Roy Grønneberg, Magnusson – whose 25-year tenure as the host of BBC1's Mastermind
often obscures his extensive writings and translations on Scottish and Icelandic history – reflected on the fundamental problem facing
islanders. For Magnusson, many Scots simply do not understand Shetland, with stereotyped images of 'Shetland fiddlers, Shetland knitters, Up Helly Aa and the Broch of Mousa' becoming 'cliches that irritated even the Shetlanders themselves'. A problem which would surely become even more acute should Callaghan's Government have succeeded in concentrating Scottish political power in an Assembly in Edinburgh.
For Jo Grimond, who served as Orkney and Shetland's representative at Westminster for 33 years from 1950, islanders' concerns about devolution were primarily influenced by 'a mistrust of government, a failure to see what anyone would gain from devolution, or suspicion of the central belt'. In January 1977, the Deputy Convenor of the Shetland Islands Council, Councillor James Jamieson, even contributed to an anti-devolution conference in Newcastle upon Tyne. In a sense, Jamieson's contribution reflected that of Grimond's constituents; one of whom memorably told him that, 'I can imagine nothing worse than being ruled by Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers'.
Today, Shetland's predicament highlights one of the Scottish Parliament's most prominent inadequacies. For all the pride that most Scots rightly have in the parliament and its achievements, two decades on from its establishment at the turn of the century, there is now a palpable sense that local communities have been disempowered through devolution as the governance of Scotland has become increasingly centralised in Edinburgh. Rather than spreading decision-making to Kirkwall and Lerwick to reflect the uniqueness of life on the islands, successive administrations at Holyrood have done little to extend the benefits of devolution.
Throughout its existence, the Shetland Movement, the predecessor to Wir Shetland, established in 1978, doggedly campaigned for an extension of devolution to the peripheries. Whilst the Shetland Movement explicitly rejected independence, it did call for an elected Assembly for Shetland with limited legislative and taxation powers, as well as the establishment of community councils and an islands development agency.
For Brian Wilson, the former Labour MP for Cunninghame North, who began his political career opposing the Labour Government's Scottish Assembly, 'the biggest curse of devolution… has been contempt for localisation'. In an opinion piece for The Scotsman
last weekend, Wilson noted that, rather than extending decision-making across the length and breadth of Scotland, devolution now comes to a 'grinding halt once it reaches Edinburgh'. As Laurence Reed remarked some years ago, it is hard for islanders, who do not feel that they are seeing the benefits of a Scottish Parliament, to join 'a tide of Edinburgh-focused nationalism if your nearest city is Bergen'.
Whilst there is an intriguing constitutional conundrum here about how much power and influence the Scottish Parliament could and should have, the growing centralisation of decision-making in and around Holyrood is having a detrimental effect on the lives of islanders. Economically, Shetland continues to punch above its weight. However, despite the passage of the Islands Act in 2018 and the government's commitment to 'island-proof' future legislation, inequality is on the rise, with the cost of living being as much as 60% higher than on the UK mainland. Council leaders have even stressed that the situation is 'seriously threatening the prosperity and even basic sustainability of Shetland as a community'.
This week, The Times
made an apt, if not entirely original, comparison between the relative powerlessness of Shetland and the Faroe Islands, 180 miles to the north, whose capital Torshavn is home to both a prime minister and a parliament with tax-raising powers.
Whether or not a legislative assembly is the answer to Shetland's ills, there is a growing sense that devolution unreformed is driving a wedge between Scots around the country and the central belt. Whilst we are not quite approaching the break-up of Scotland, two decades on, it now seems particularly pertinent to ask whether how we are governed works for all Scots.