Do Orcadians really want to become part of Norway? No, but Orkney Islands’ Council knows how to grab media attention by raising, provocatively, its ancient Nordic connections.
The problem is that the Council’s leverage in dealings with Edinburgh and London is at its highest when Scotland’s constitutional status is top of the political news agenda. With the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum nowhere in sight, Orkney has struggled to get noticed where it counts. Until recently…
There may well be no final answer to the ‘Islands Question’ but the interests of Scotland’s islands communities should not have to wait until the Scotland’s constitutional status rises up the agenda. Changing circumstances, challenges and opportunities unrelated to the Scottish Question ought to be enough to gain the attention of central governments in Edinburgh and London.
The response to Orkney Islands Council’s recent resolution raising the possibility of changes to the islands’ status, powers and competences met with a very different response to previous similar demands. Cllr James Stockan, OIC leader, lodged a motion before the council:
Due to historical and contemporary challenges in relation to equitable capital and revenue funding, and policy support across our island communities, Orkney Islands Council should now explore options for alternative models of governance that provide greater fiscal security and economic opportunity for the islands of Orkney. Those investigations to include Nordic connections, crown dependencies and other options for greater subsidiarity and autonomy to be presented to the community for consideration.
An addendum was successfully moved by former OIC leader Cllr Steven Heddle:
We reinvigorate the Constitutional Reform Consultative Group with officer support to pursue, amongst other things, opportunities from the National Islands Plan, the Islands Act (such as the ability to request transfer of powers), and to develop the Single Islands Authority work, continuing to test our national governments to deliver on commitments they have made to empower the islands and level up, as well as the matters discussed today.
The media focussed on those ‘Nordic connections’ or the prospect that Orkney might indeed seek to rejoin Norway after an absence of 550 years: these options were never likely to happen but did ensure Orkney’s concerns grabbed headlines. But the response from the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson was dismissive:
First and foremost, there is no mechanism for the conferral of crown dependency or overseas territory status on any part of the UK. But fundamentally, we are stronger as one United Kingdom, we have no plans to change that. We’ve got no plans to change the devolution settlement. We are supporting Orkney already with £50m to grow the economic prosperity of the Scottish islands, through the islands deal. But the Government’s position is that the UK is stronger united.
This response is a sign of how marginal debate on Scotland’s constitutional status has become.
The islands case for special treatment has a long history. The Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley, proposed a radical overhaul of local government in its 1969 report. One question posed by the Commission was: ‘Are conditions in these Island groups so exceptional that the principles that we have used elsewhere in Scotland in constructing our system of local government have to be set aside…?’
The majority view was that they were not: the three island archipelagos should be second tier authorities within a larger Highlands and Islands region and indeed the arguments for a two-tier system were ‘nowhere stronger than in the case of the Islands’. The main argument against all-purpose authority rested on a belief that the Islands would be unable to maintain standards of service equal to those within a larger region. Two Commissioners issued a note of dissent:
The physical separateness of an island requires of its inhabitants a certain attitude of mind in order to enable them to make it a going concern. The more dependent they are on services controlled outside the islands, over which they have little feeling of influence, the more dependent they will become and the less likely to engender the self-reliance which alone makes island living possible. In order to lie successfully on an island one must be insular.
The transition from Royal Commission report to legislation and implementation is never smooth. Wheatley’s proposals were altered in significant ways, including its proposals for the island authorities. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles became all-purpose local authorities, assuming responsibilities split between regions and districts elsewhere in Scotland.
Opposition had been galvanised around the minority recommendation for special status. Much was learned from the experience, with Edward Thomason, Shetland Council leader, later noting that campaigning for single tier all-purpose authorities enabled the islanders to ‘understand the power of the media – press, radio and TV –and to develop some ability at least in this form of communication’.
Oil and Devolution – ‘where is Shetland?’
There was little interest in, engagement with or knowledge about the northern islands in London before the discovery of North Sea oil. A Scottish Office civil servant, well versed in islands matters, noted that a senior Treasury official had started a meeting by asking where Shetland was and whether it consisted of one or two islands. There was a tendency to patronise and underestimate the islanders’ political leaders. In March 1973, for example, Willie Hamilton MP claimed that the ‘simple gentle people’ of the Highlands and Islands were being out-witted by ‘land-grabbing Mafia of Edinburgh and Texas’.
Orkney and Shetland may have been the smallest councils in Scotland but skilled leadership combined with the opportunities of devolution debates and oil ensured they wielded most power. Oil companies and central government were keen to extract oil and gas from the North Sea as quickly as possible. But this needed the support of the island councils thanks partly to private legislation passed in 1974 – the Zetland County Council Act and Orkney County Council Act – which gave the councils important powers which were protected under the reformed system of local government.
The councils proved adept in negotiations with Westminster/Whitehall and the oil majors. The US Consul in Edinburgh described Ian Clark, the Shetland Islands Council (SIC) chief executive as a ‘tyrant’ who had ‘hornswoggled some of the biggest multinationals and most sophisticated leaders in Britain out of terms for the development of Sullom Voe which would make Scottish nationalists pale with envy’. SIC had ‘forced the majors into giving them a highly profitable partnership for which they had put up no funds and over which they won significant control’.
But it was not just oil that created opportunities for the islands. Devolution and the possibility of Scottish independence were viewed with suspicion in the northern islands. Nationalists, Devolutionists and Unionists fell over themselves seeking support in the islands. There were fears that the Assembly would centralise power, reduce grants to local authorities, undermine the special status and powers accorded to the islands through the 1974 Orkney County Council Act which inter alia gave the council a strategic reserve fund with investment returns from fees from the Flotta Oil Terminal.
Concessions could be wrung out of government. In a letter to Russell Johnston in 1977, Devolution Minister John Smith tried to assure the Liberal MP that Orkney and Shetland had little to fear from an Assembly. The councils ‘cannot have their local government structure and rate support grant frozen in aspic but I see little incentive for a Scottish Assembly to upset the apple cart. They under-estimate their own capacity to lobby their case.’ Smith confirmed the Government’s intention to ‘give one Assembly member to Shetland and one to Orkney’ in the forthcoming legislation.
And the National Archives disclose that in a note to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1977, Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey noted the ‘apparent disquiet in Orkney and Shetland’ about devolution and if the islands chose to break with Scotland in the event of Scotland becoming independent then a high proportion of oil would belong to them:
I am not, of course, suggesting that the Government should encourage Orkney and Shetland to try to opt out of devolution to the Scottish Assembly, or necessarily that it would be in our interests to exclude them if they voted strongly against devolution in the referendum. But it would be unwise, in view of the scale of the issues involved, to tie our hands in advance, or to discourage Orkney and Shetland unnecessarily by adopting an over-rigid attitude towards any desire for separate treatment. If and when it becomes clearer that such a desire exists, we shall need to consider our response very carefully.
Bruce Millan, Scottish Secretary, devoted a third of his speech at the third reading of the Scotland Bill in February 1978 to Orkney and Shetland.
An amendment moved by Orkney and Shetland’s MP Jo Grimond to the devolution legislation would have excluded the pair from devolution if the islands voted NO in the referendum and proposed that a commission would be established ‘to recommend such changes in the government of the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands as may be desirable’ in the event of devolution. Orkney and Shetland overwhelmingly voted against devolution but as the Scotland Act 1978 failed to overcome the 40% hurdle set by Parliament, the provision to create a Commission fell.
The Opposition Conservatives were no less willing to play the Orkney and Shetland card. Margaret Thatcher was amongst a number of senior politicians to visit the islands. In 1977, she told Orcadians that it was her party’s policy to introduce a road equivalent tariff for island shipping services. The SNP, for its part, was willing to offer the islands ‘as much autonomy as they want’ in the bidding war.
The islands’ governance remained a concern after the referendum and the return of the Tories in 1979. In 1981, Shetland Islands Council passed a resolution outlining the challenges and proposed the establishment of a Commission that had been part of the devolution debate. In response in 1982, George Younger established a Committee chaired by Sir David Montgomery, to inquire into the functions and powers of the Scottish islands councils. During its deliberations, the committee heard suggestions that the Faroe Islandsmight offer a model that could be suitably adapted. Five members visited the Faroes in August 1983. The Montgomery Committee reported in April 1984.
The Government accepted 37 of Montgomery’s 49 recommendations (though a number of these were for no change). It concluded that the creation of all-purpose authorities islands councils had been a success and steps should be taken ‘wherever possible to consolidate, develop and extend these powers’. It argued for a loosening of central government financial controls. It also argued that its conclusions should not be ‘regarded as final, nor should they necessarily apply for more than a relatively short period.’
Purposeful Opportunists: Our Islands Our Future
The 2014 independence referendum offered the islands an opportunity not experienced since the 1970s. Orkney, Shetland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (The Western Isles Council changed its name in 1995) worked together to explore how they might take advantage of the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future insinuating itself into the independence debate. Our islands, Our Future (OIOF) was launched in June 2013 with a statement of intent:
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.
While each council had its own concerns, there was broad agreement on three core areas on which they worked together:
- Marine Resources and Energy Growth
- Constitutional Status and Public Sector Change
- Economic Drivers and Island Wellbeing
The three councils played each side off against the other, asking what the Scottish and UK Governments had done for the islands in recent times. As in the 1970s, there were frequent visits to the islands by senior politicians. Alex Salmond announced his ‘Lerwick Declaration’ in July 2013 creating an Islands Areas Ministerial Working Group (IAMWG) to examine devolving more power to the islands. In October, Orkney and Shetland MP Alastair Carmichael became Secretary of State for Scotland.
Key features of the OIOF were notable:
- conscious effort to avoid being seen to take sides in the referendum
- concrete proposals embedded within broad principles
- demands relevant regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status
- recognition of the time-limited nature of the campaign – pinning down commitments before 18 September 2014.
The Scottish Government responded in June 2014 with Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities. The UK Government responded in August via Framework for the Islands with a ten-point plan for the islands including island proofing.
The key achievement of OIOF was the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. It introduced ‘island proofing’. All public bodies are required to conduct an Island Communities Impact Assessment in policy development and delivery to consider whether this would have a significant different impact on island communities. It also required a National Islands Plan, allowed for variation of council ward sizes and gave the councils more powers over marine planning and licensing. The Western Isles was protected as a constituency as was already the case with Orkney and Shetland.
There can be no finality to debates on Orkney’s status, powers and competences, as the Montgomery Committee noted. Changing circumstances, opportunities and challenges will require periodic reviews. But what is also clear is that Orkney, along with Shetland and the Western Isles, can maximise pressure when Scotland’s constitutional status is under serious debate. It is unlikely that the UK Government would have been so curt in dismissing the Council’s motion, ignoring wider alternative models of governance if another independence referendum was likely any time soon. The real test of Scottish and UK Governments commitment to the islands lies ahead in a time when a reasoned case is made and without political leverage.
Featured image via David McAllister. Sullom Voe by Robert Bone via Wikimedia Commons CC By-SA 2.0