Orkney and Shetland mull independence from Scotland

  • By: Daniel Grummitt
  • Date: September 13, 2020
  • Time to read: 3 min.

Orkney and Shetland mull independence from Scotland

Just days after the Shetland Islands Council (SIC) voted overwhelmingly to explore the options for “achieving financial and political self-determination”, leader of Orkney Islands Council James Stockan said that the islands would have to ensure that the option of self-determination would be written into any future Scottish independence referendum.

A majority of Orkney’s councilors had backed a motion investigating “greater autonomy or self-determination” in the wake of the Brexit vote in 2017. Stockan told The Herald, which backed the unionist cause in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum: “We want to seek our opportunity as a unique part of the UK that we could do something different if we wished. All constitutional matters ultimately rest with Westminster, so the question is, we would need to make sure that is written into any future referendum (on Scottish independence from the UK).”

On the SIC’s vote, Stockan added: “Shetland is a slightly different position in that they want to do this now. We will work with them and support them because we both have the same historic background and the same challenges from government and there are some unique opportunities in a post-Brexit world.”

The SIC motion stated some of the reasons behind the move that was backed 18-2 by the islands’ 22 councillors. It said: “In recent times we have seen more and more decision making being centralised and public funding being consistently reduced. We are concerned that this situation is threatening the prosperity, and even basic sustainability, of Shetland as a community.”

Orkney and Shetland mull independence from Scotland

Council leader Steven Coutts highlighted the opportunities in energy transition and also ferry funding as key issues, but also mentioned fisheries, aquaculture, and the space industry as key industries for the future that needed to have local policy if they were to bring about thriving island communities.

The Scottish government’s Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse hit back, saying, “In 2018 we passed the Islands Act – a historic piece of legislation which hands more power to our island communities and acknowledges their uniqueness, by enabling relevant local authorities to request the transfer of responsibilities from Scottish Ministers to them, following consultation with their own local communities. No additional powers requests have been submitted thus far.”

All of this plays very much into the ongoing debate around Scottish secession from the UK. Orkney and Shetland have traditionally been some of the most pro-UK parts of Scotland and recorded substantial unionist votes in the Scottish independence referendum. They have also largely resisted the SNP surge and have continued their tradition of returning Liberal Democrat MPs and MSPs at Westminster and Holyrood. A significant factor is that a large proportion of the North Sea oil and gas deposits that have traditionally been part of the SNP’s economic case for independence lie in the waters around Shetland and Orkney.

Nationalists have been key to play down the impact on Scottish independence and pointed out, quite rightly, that traditional moves for greater self-determination have not talked mainly of complete independence, but rather greater autonomy, with similar models to those used by the UK Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man. The example of the nearby Faroe Islands which has significant autonomy from Denmark has also been cited. It is also interesting to note that SIC’s sole SNP representative voted in favour of the motion and it is possible that the islands could choose to join Scotland rather than the UK if they were to be offered a favourable deal. Pro-independence The National newspaper argued that the motion was more about getting a better budget deal from the Scottish government rather than re-joining the UK after an independence vote.

Interestingly, a council by-election will be held in part of Orkney next month but it remains to be seen if independence from Scotland will be an issue on the doorstep.

Image Source: Rab Knight from en.wikipedia / Public domain

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