Scotland’s islands sense opportunity in independence debate
Oil and gas a powerful motive for island autonomy
The Stena Carron oil drill ship, moored at Lerwick, Shetland Islands. Scotland’s oil and gas riches are playing a major part in the independence debate. Photograph: via Getty
For nearly four decades, the Shetland Islands have been linked in the public’s mind with oil, a community that has done well from the exploration of the deep waters of the North Sea.
However, the proximity of oil fields does not bring with it cheap petrol. On the road into Lerwick from Sumburgh Airport, the local filling station advertises petrol on sale at 150.9p (175.5 cent) per litre and that is with a 5p subsidy offered to the Scottish Highlands and islands by the British government.
The higher prices faced by Shetlanders highlight their isolation; but, equally, it illustrates the distance, both physically and metaphorically, that many on the Shetlands, the Orkneys and the Western Isles, feel from Edinburgh, not just London.
With little more than a year to go before the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the islanders, who have begun work jointly on an “Our Islands, Our Future” document, sense an opportunity for concessions now exists.
“One thing that is absolutely clear about the referendum is that regardless of the result there will be some degree of constitutional change,” says chairman of the Shetlands Islands Council Gary Robinson.
New tax rules
The early ideas include demands for control of the sea-bed around the islands, which would allow revenues currently paid to the Crown Estate to be channelled into local needs, ones decided by locals. Orkney, which is rapidly becoming a world-class hub for tidal and wave energy, wants new grid connections to the Scottish mainland, even though those very connections are deeply unpopular with mainlanders as the high-tension cables make their way south.
All agree new tax rules should be put in place to ensure the islands benefit directly from renewable energy projects, such as the deeply-contested 100-turbine project proposed for Central Shetland. Last month, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond offered “the Lerwick Declaration”, saying it was “obvious” the Scottish National Party, since it believes that Scots should run Scotland, favours local decision-making.
In the eyes of opponents, however, the SNP’s performance in office, an effective one even in the eyes of many of its enemies, has been about bringing power to the centre, not decentralising it, notably the merger of all of Scotland’s police forces into one, along with fire brigades.
However, justice minister Kenny MacAskill is unrepentant, arguing that the changes made were the only way to ensure budget cuts enforced by London did not impact on front-line policing.
Scotland’s oil and gas riches are playing a major part in the independence debate, with supporters and opponents of the referendum arguing bitterly over how long they will last, how much they will contribute to coffers, or how much of them Scotland would control afterwards.
For Shetlanders, the issue is particularly acute. When North Sea oil first began to come ashore in the mid-1970s, the islands enjoyed a bonanza, though locals were conscious it was one that would end, given the 25-year lifespan predicted for the fields back then.