Scotland: Shetland independence ‘is a real thing’ says Galloway
Malcolm Bell, convenor of Shetland Islands Council hit out at the SNP administration claiming Island communities feel “undervalued, underfunded and frankly under Holyrood.” After First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a second independence vote could be held next year, residents on the Northern archipelago have also hinted at going it alone.
Mr Bell recently oversaw a vote where island councillors voted 18 to two in favour of a motion to formally explore options “for achieving financial and political self-determination” from Scotland.
In a debate lasting more than an hour, members argued decision-making has become increasingly centralised and public funding for the islands has been cut under the SNP Government at Holyrood.
The motion, signed by council leader Steven Coutts and Mr Bell, said: “We are concerned that this ongoing situation is seriously threatening the prosperity and even basic sustainability of Shetland as a community.”
Now Mr Bell claimed twenty-one years after devolution, there has been no “serious attempt” by the SNP to transfer power to councils.
Speaking for the first time about the topic, he said: “Indeed we now have a system of local government in Scotland that is, frankly, no longer local nor is it government; a strange position for a country that frequently burnishes its European credentials.”
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Mr Bell said because of this, the Isles has lost control of “many important services that our community values: public health, water, police and fire to name some.”
He said: “The threat to local government is not exclusive to Shetland.
“However, our geography, our size and the existing make-up of our public services means we have a real opportunity, if we want it, to return democratic accountability and meaningful choice to our community.”
Mr Bell stopped short of saying independence would be achieved immediately and referred to their neighbours, the Faroe Islands, which is a constituent country of Denmark separate in most policy areas.
He said: “However, during the recent event we heard, repeatedly, that self-determination is neither radical nor exceptional but is completely normal almost anywhere else.
“To succeed the community needs to agree the current direction of travel is no longer sustainable.
“If we can demonstrate that, we can turn the tide.”
Referring to the current devolved Scottish Government, they added: “Centralisation may result in a disconnect between the offer during an election campaign and the ability to deliver in office.
“This can lead to disillusionment in both the elector and elected and may be one reason for poorly contested local elections with low voter turnout.
“If this trend continues, we may find more seats in future are uncontested or even unfilled.”
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Mr Bell also backed former Scottish Greens MSP Andy Wightman’s Member’s Bill which will aim to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law.
The Bill is effectively seen as a way for Scotland to stay linked with Europe by incorporating a charter which will force Scottish ministers to give councils additional powers.
The Charter, which was created in 1985 by the Council of Europe and ratified by the UK in 1997, sets out 10 principles to protect the basic powers of local authorities.
The Charter commits Governments to applying basic rules guaranteeing the political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities.
It provides the principle and authority of local self-government shall be recognised in laws and that councils are to be elected by members of the public.
Mr Bell concluded: “Recently the Scottish Government signalled its support for Andy Wightman MSP’s bill to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self Government into Scots Law.
“The Scottish Parliament, therefore, should be able to pass it before the election in May and in doing so provide local authorities with some basic legal protection around their powers and independence.”
Any move for Shetland to become self-determining would need to be supported by an island-wide referendum, councillors have made clear though.
Council leader Steven Coutts suggested devolution has not benefited the area and said the Scottish Parliament feels “remote” to islanders, who face some of the highest rates of fuel poverty in the country.
He added the levels of funding for ferries “negatively impacts on Shetland and everyone of Shetland”, although the Scottish Government said it has provided more than £15 million for ferry services over the last three years.
The Shetland West councillor referenced the 2013 Lerwick declaration by former first minister Alex Salmond, in which he announced plans to decentralise power to Shetland, Orkney, and the Western Isles.
Quoting Mr Salmond, who stated “we believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future”, Mr Coutts said: “Replace Scotland with Shetland and that’s the motion here today, and I encourage you to support it”.
Mr Coutts is currently speaking to the UK and Scottish Governments about options for Shetland’s self-determination.
He pledged: “The status quo is not working.
“Devolution and the Islands Act have not made any tangible difference to the quality of life.
“I hope they recognise the challenges of living in Shetland, like the high cost of living, but also the incredible opportunities political and financial self-determination could bring.”
The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.
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