|Could the Orkney Isles form part of a new crown dependency?|
It's a conference I haven't been able to attend personally, due to work commitments. Unusually, the agenda was more daring, if not ambitious, than has generally been the case in recent years - with significant debates on secret courts (at which the government position was roundly defeated, again) and mental health issues (in which, even as an absentee member, I feel proud that our party had the courage to discuss this matter so openly and even prouder that we appear to understand many of the issues faced by people with mental ill-health). Unfortunately, what excites the membership doesn't necessarily excite the media and - rather than hailing our progressive attitudes on tackling Scotland's mental health problems - today's headlines are focused on what Scotland on Sunday calls a "Northern Isles devolution bid".
Before dealing with the response from the Scottish media, it might be useful to actually take a look at what was being proposed and what was actually said. The motion, which I think is rather self-explanatory, is reproduced below:
Shetland and Orkney – the constitutional debate
(Orkney local party)
Mover: Tavish Scott MSP
Summator: Liam McArthur MSP
A. The strong feelings in Shetland and Orkney against the recent centralisation of public services towards the central belt, for example on policing, fire services, colleges, economic development, public sector construction contracts and civil engineering;
B. The distinct needs of the islands on many matters, not least the seafood industries, the Scottish Government's cuts to the Air Discount Scheme and the failure to prioritise ferry services;
C. The recent conference motion passed in support of the report of the Home Rule and Community Rule Commission which recommended radical action to reverse centralisation and empower communities;
D. The belief amongst many in the northern isles that the legal, constitutional positions of Shetland and Orkney are not clear and that the impact of the 1707 Act of Union is open to interpretation.
1. That Shetland and Orkney should develop a preferred position on their future relationship with the United Kingdom and Scotland;
2. That the world-leading exploitations of oil and gas and renewable energy in the waters around the islands gives Shetland and Orkney strength in any negotiations they may wish to have;
3. That the Scottish Government should accept that Shetland and Orkney should have a separate right to self-determination, to secure the best future for themselves, whatever the constitutional future of Scotland.
And that's that, although I'm surprised the Tory Earl of Caithness didn't receive a credit.
If I had been in attendance I would have liked to have spoken against parts of this motion, which I consider ill-conceived, for reasons that will become obvious.
Tavish Scott, moving, delivered a speech (reproduced here) in which he made his case for what essentially amounts to separatism for the Northern Isles. From all accounts it was a well-received speech, if somewhat lacking in intellectual rigour, and he made the following points:
* "The Northern Isles are vibrant, distinctive with our own dialect, language and Norse festivals. Orkney and Shetland both fly their own flags. Our history looks east more than south."
* "Shetland and Orkney want to use this period of intense constitutional navel gazing to decide what we want for our future. We are not going to be told what to do by the SNP. Nor by any other government. "
* "Those who care most about the future of the Northern Isles are those who live there, and they should decide their future."
* "Ming Campbell's Home Rule proposals open up a new constitutional route for our Islands."
* "Look at the Nationalist record - a record of removing powers and responsibilities from Islanders."
* "Shetland can run its own administration. The Northern Isles can be their own government. Shetland is comfortable working out local solutions to Island needs"
* "It's not your oil Alex, its wirs."
* "The Manx Parliament is a good model for Shetland. Speaker Roden is a Scot. He's a former young liberal. He lit the liberal flame in Moray in the 1979 General Election. "
* "Shetland and Orkney may never have a stronger opportunity to negotiate a future for the Islands."
* "Is the Northern Isles future as a crown dependency?"
In response to this, I think it's fair to note the following:
* The Northern Isles are not the only part of the UK that is vibrant, with a strong sense of cultural and regional identity, or with historical justification for perceiving itself as distinct. We could also take the examples of the Western Isles (the independence of Lordship of the Isles ended in 1493, 25 years after Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland), Strathclyde, Fife and Berwick and make special cases for them. No doubt such logic could also be applied to Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia and Kent. I guess some Cornish MPs should be looking at yesterday's conference vote with interest.
* The people of the Northern Isles will have a say in their future, a say that was consistently denied during Mr Scott's time as party leader. The fear is, of course, that there is a possibility (as in the 1979 and 1997 referendums) that the views of the Northern Isles' inhabitants might not correspond with those of the Scottish people more generally.
* I have no doubt Shetland could run it's own administration. By the same logic, so could Scotland. Just thought I'd mention it. Perhaps the real question isn't one of capability but desirability? Just as an independent Scotland could run it's own administration (unless it is less competent than the Shetland Isles, which seems questionable) that's not what concerns many voters ahead of next years referendum: they want to know whether an independent Scotland can deliver on certain fronts, how strong it will be economically and what it will actually mean in practice for Scottish people. That same approach should be adopted in this case - it's too glib simply to state that "we can, therefore we should".
* I'm not of the view that the Tynwald is as good a template for self-government as Scott suggests, and the only evidence he provides in support of this is an example of a Scottish Liberal rising to the top. I'm not so sure that is a sufficiently good reason to argue for the model to be adopted elsewhere; in any case, the came could be said for Holyrood where a Liberal was elected as the Speaker.
* As for "strong opportunities to negotiate"...no doubt the Liberal Democrats will never have a better opportunity to negotiate for a genuine federalist settlement. Whether they will take such opportunities, or if they even know how, is presently uncertain. We will know more shortly when the Conservative and Labour parties detail their own proposals and the Liberal Democrats are forced to respond. However, Scott isn't really advocating negotiation but is instead attempting to score a victory over the SNP and Yes Scotland. He's using arguments, including some highly pertinent ones, to score some political points - and ask some questions.
The media have responded to this in typical fashion, in the process missing some of the key points. Scotland on Sunday reports that "Alex Salmond’s plans for independence have suffered a unexpected setback", which is a considerable exaggeration. The Sunday Herald concentrated on the oil question, playing up the possibilities of the islands "breaking away". The Sunday Mail, no doubt accurately, suggested that at least one parliamentarian's motivations were revealed by his "conceding [that] it felt good simply to annoy SNP leader Mr Salmond."
Of course there is some truth in all of these, but the situation needs to be looked at soberly. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have opened up a tantalising possibility and it's vital to understand the wider context of the debate.
Firstly, it's right to dismiss what is unhelpful. Some of Scott's argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and amount to intellectual doublethink. How, for example, can someone so vociferously propose an SNP argument in principle but adopt it for their own ends when thought appropriate? How can a liberal, opposed to the principles of colonialism, consider the creation of new crown dependencies? How can we cite the examples of other crown dependencies - and make claims that Shetland and Orkney obtaining equal status would mean being given control of oilfields - when it is an undeniable state of fact that they control the sea only within 12 miles of their respective coastlines? A claim for oil built on such misconceptions will not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It's also difficult to criticise the SNP for risking European Union membership when crown dependencies are not eligible to be members of the EU.
The emphasis on the SNP, and our continuing tendency to define ourselves by hostility towards the nationalists and the first minister, achieves little other than to make us look petty-minded. This attitude is underlined when Liam MacArthur comments that "annoying Alex Salmond is enough to commend any motion" or when Scott himself refers to wanting to "tweak the First Minister's tail", a determination not to "be told what to do by the SNP" or jokingly says that an "asteroid has only deflected from Scotland by the gravitational effect of Alex Salmond's ego." We remain motivated, in part at least, by an unhealthy antipathy towards the SNP. That is not attractive, and if the Scottish Liberal Democrats hope to win back many of our former voters who have deserted us for Salmond's party we appear to be going the wrong way about it.
This has been presented in the media as some kind of imperialist plan for partition, with some justification. Menzies Campbell's Commission did not recommend this. Neither, until recently, has Tavish Scott - while either as a minister or party leader. It's quite obvious that this is a response to the SNP's independence referendum and designed in no small way to create headaches for Yes Scotland. "Annoying Alex Salmond" indeed.
A further difficulty appears to be the lack of thought so often applied to the nationalists - in respect to the practical consequences of Scottish independence on such matters as passports, border control, education, healthcare, etc. - also is evident here. Such considerations have been overlooked, as well as the likely political ramifications. How will passing this motion increase the party's appeal to Scottish voters, especially given how the media were inevitably going to respond? Does it improve or further erode our credibility? Might it look like we're simply creating a little mischief to make life awkward for Alex Salmond...and if so, won't we look petty and juvenile? Isn't there a danger of this being seen as childish politics?
All this said, Scott does make some very timely points that deserve not to be obscured by the main issue. This is not simply a matter relating to the Northern Isles, and there is more to this than mere SNP bashing. Whatever Scott and MacArthur may think, Orkney and Shetland do not constitute a special case. They are culturally different, but then so are the Highlands, the Hebrides, Argyll & Bute and the borders. What is true is that all of these regions mentioned suffer by way of being outside of the central belt, and that many sparsely populated areas of Scotland are ill-served by the SNP's tendency towards such. The Northern Islands are probably no more disadvantaged than many other parts of Scotland, but that is not to say their inhabitants have no right to express a wish for decision-making to be devolved as locally as possible.
The desire for localism is something that Liberal Democrats can identify with, even if it is unusual for it to be presented in near-colonial terminology. None of us want services to be centralised; it goes against the grain of any liberal's inclinations. We want communities - especially the more remote of our communities - to feel connected and empowered, not dictated to. Scott referred in his speech to "the remorseless pattern of centralisation" and to the possibility of The Islands Council being absorbed into Highland or Grampian - neither of which would be a welcome possibility. The localist dimensions of the motion are therefore an assertion of good Liberal Democrat values and a key reason why it was passed unanimously. Unfortunately the narrow focus on the Northern Isles did little to further localism more widely and therefore in some respects this motion represented a missed opportunity to examine the difficulties of many of Scotland's diverse rural communities.
In this sense, the principles contained within the motion apply elsewhere. No doubt Scott is not looking to promote the possibility of Inverclyde or a host of other local authorities asserting their right to self-determination with potential crown dependency status, but our focus should certainly be on empowering our communities and especially our more disadvantaged communities.
Another positive thing, which has been largely ignored, is that there was nothing in either the motion or Scott's speech that sets out a commitment to separatism. What is does commit the party to is the Northern Isles' "separate right to self-determination". I'm not convinced that they merit a separate right, but this is a far cry from adopting separation as official party policy, as has been suggested. Even Scott, in referring to crown dependencies, was merely stating an option - perhaps his preferred option - but merely one possibility nonetheless.
I will not deny that some of the perception of this being anti-SNP mischief holds true. It is undeniable that people like Tavish Scott seem to view virtually every issue in terms of a battle with nationalists. But there is more that underpins this and, while I'm not convinced by the motion as a whole, it would be wrong not to understand precisely what else it is. It is more than a reaction against the SNP: it is also a reaction against centralising government.
It's certainly not the most intelligent motion ever put forward to a Liberal Democrat conference and it raises more questions than it answers, but we need to look at it with sober judgement. We are not a party committed to dividing Scotland, nor to separatism for Orkney, Shetland or indeed anywhere else.