Independence thinking...

Malachy explains some the subtleties of Shetland's relationship to Scotland amid talk of independenc

As last week’s New Statesman special feature demonstrated, for those of us living north of the border, independence is truly the topic of the day.

But here in Shetland the issue is not just a simple matter of 'yes' or 'no'. These islands have a complex and strange relationship with Scotland. And it is a relationship which, ultimately, could have an impact far beyond these shores.

For most islanders, identity lies at home: we are Shetlanders, whatever that may mean. And while Shetlanders today are usually willing to describe themselves as Scottish, this has not always been the case. Until not very long ago, to be Scottish in Shetland was a more heinous crime even than being English!

Culturally, historically and, of course, geographically, Shetland is different from Scotland. And it has never voted SNP.

Shetland, along with Orkney, only became part of Scotland in 1469, when they were pawned to the Scottish crown as part of a dowry payment from the king of Norway and Denmark to James III of Scotland. The agreement made was that once the full dowry was paid the islands would be returned to Denmark, and until that time Norse laws would remain in place. But Scotland reneged on the deal.

Denmark appealed to the crown several times over the ensuing centuries, but to no avail. Norse law was eventually ended in 1611, though Denmark has, in theory, never renounced its claim to the isles. Following the Act of Union between Scotland and England in 1707, at a time when many islanders still spoke the native Norn as their first language, the vast majority of Shetlanders were forced into serfdom. The people were cruelly exploited by their new Scottish landlords until the end of the 19th century.

This tainted history explains not only the antipathy towards Scotland, which continued well into the 20th century, but also the persistent nostalgia for a romanticised, Nordic past, which is most apparent in the Viking festivals of Up Helly Aa, held around the isles each winter.

But the uniqueness of Shetland identity would hold little interest beyond the pubs and homes of the islands were it not for one, significant factor: oil.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, while the Scottish nationalists were shouting from the rooftops about “our oil”, there was a faint but significant murmur from the Northern Isles that, actually, it’s ours.

When the North Sea was first being explored for oil, Shetland was quick to see the possibilities. The Zetland County Council Act was passed by parliament in 1974, giving the local council full control over all developments around the isles, and also allowing them to build up a massive oil fund over the following years. It has made Shetland into one of the wealthiest parts of the UK. The oil terminal at Sullom Voe became the largest in Europe, handling, at its peak, 1.4 million barrels a day, and although production has decreased since that time, the terminal is expected to last until at least 2020.

It is no surprise then that an independence movement developed within Shetland. It saw as its models the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, as well as our closest neighbour, Faroe, an autonomous dependency of Denmark.

Interestingly, the SNP has never rejected the right of the isles to autonomy, and the party did not stand against the coalition candidate of the Orkney and Shetland Movements in the 1987 election. The SNP has promised that, should Scotland move towards independence, Shetland will be free to choose its own path. But what that path will be is not at all clear.

The oil boom, which potentially made Shetland independence financially viable, also, ironically, made it less likely. The population of the islands was boosted dramatically during the ‘70s and ‘80s by Scottish and English oil workers and their families, many of whom have chosen to stay. Culturally and demographically Shetland now looks more like the rest of the UK than ever. But a radical and cohesive independence movement is certainly not out of the question, and, who knows, Denmark might even take the opportunity to try to regain its old territory!

As if in penance for the environmental damage caused by the oil industry, from which the isles have benefited so much, Shetland Islands Council is now developing another hugely ambitious energy project. The largest community-owned windfarm in the world is planned for Shetland – 200 giant mills covering much of the central mainland. It is a project that could potentially supply as much as 25 per cent of Scotland’s power, and it would also see another significant cash-boost for the isles. Our importance as an energy provider to the rest of the country is not set to be diminished anytime soon.

Politicians, both in Westminster and the Scottish central belt, are quick to forget about the little islands in the north, but Shetland holds some interesting cards in its hand, and at the moment it remains anyone’s guess as to how it will choose to play them.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.