In his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Donald Dewar said the new institution was “about who we are, how we carry ourselves”. On such a historic occasion, the inaugural first minister said, he heard romantic echoes from the past, including “the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land; the discourse of the Enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe”.
Holyrood was intended to be a parliament for all of Scotland, a counter to a distant and often ignorant Westminster, a democracy that was concerned with and knowledgeable about the nation in all its rich diversity. The rural, Doric-speaking folk of the Mearns, in the north-east, would count every bit as much as the city-dwellers of the central belt.
You’d struggle to find many people in the remoter parts of Scotland, both north and south, who believe today that this promise has been kept. Disaffection with Edinburgh now keeps company with the sceptical eye that is still cast towards London.
As it prepares to turn 25, Holyrood seems a voice primarily for the population hubs of middle Scotland. This feeling has intensified as the SNP has become dominated by central-belt politicians. The party owes its modern-day political muscle to its ousting of Labour from Glasgow and the west, and from Fife and parts of Edinburgh in the east. Its last two leaders have been Glasgow MSPs – one attraction of Humza Yousaf to the outgoing regime was that he would maintain Nicola Sturgeon’s link to these new Nat heartlands.
Restlessness is growing on the periphery. The latest eruption has come from the Orkney Islands. Councillors there have voted in favour of a motion to seek “alternative forms of governance”, which may even include a drastic request to become a self-governing territory of Norway. Culturally, Orkney has always been something of a land apart – the Vikings landed there in the late 8th century and stayed for half a millennium. The islands only became part of Scotland in 1472.
The council leader James Stockan has criticised the funding Orkney receives within the UK, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday (3 July): “The mark of a good government is how it actually supports the periphery and the most disadvantaged. Our communities on the tiniest of our islands are the most difficult to serve… we do look with envy at the communities in Norway where they have a completely different approach to the remote and rural.”
But if it is unlikely that the top end of the British Isles is about to snap off – the Norwegian government has declined to comment and may be somewhat spooked by the proposal – there is a battle ahead. Both Westminster and Holyrood are being held culpable: among Orkney’s problems is an ageing and failing ferry fleet, an issue familiar to many of Scotland’s island communities.
The Western Isles are still waiting for two new SNP-commissioned ferries that were due to begin sailing in 2018, and which have run vastly over budget. Earlier this week, Uisdean Robertson, an independent councillor representing North Uist in the Western Isles, told MPs at the Scottish Affairs Committee that “decisions are taken by people who are remote from the disturbance it causes”. At a protest in June, locals said they felt “forgotten, abandoned and ignored” and that they fear an exodus from the islands.
The SNP appears to have lost any rural touch it once had. It is in coalition with the Greens who, despite their pastoral-sounding name, are a heavy-handed, largely urban party with little sympathy for traditional ways of life. Last week Yousaf was forced to announce a rethink of plans promoted by his Green ministers to ban fishing in 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas, following an angry rebellion by coastal communities and the SNP MSPs who represent them.
There is also concern among farmers about the SNP-Green approach to managing wild animal stocks and the now banned use of the herbicide Asulox to control bracken and reduce the danger posed by ticks. Meanwhile, the hard-line stance the coalition has taken on the replacement of oil and gas with renewable energy is alienating many of those who work in the oil industry in Aberdeen and its surrounding areas.
The SNP has been an overwhelmingly centralising force in government, a nanny-state administration that seems to think Edinburgh always knows best. It has drained local government of power, and is only now beginning – from a position of weakness – to reconsider the financial and policy freedoms that councils should have.
If Yousaf hears the speak of the Mearns today, it is a shout of fury. Scotland’s ancient, far-flung communities have had enough of being mistreated by the distant and the ignorant.