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It’s a naturally tricky quotation to Google, and your correspondent failed at it, but Orwell wrote somewhere that whenever there is a group B who wants to secede from state A, you will always find an even smaller C, D and the rest of the alphabet concerned about coming under the exclusive control of B. Canada needs no reminding, I suppose, of this principle. But Orwell was also a big fan of Scotland’s picturesque offshore islands, so it makes one a little sad he could not be here to see the subarctic archipelago of Shetland brewing trouble for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) government.
The council of the Shetland Islands, in which one official SNP member is outnumbered 21-1 by independents of various stripes, voted 18-2 on Wednesday in favour of a motion to “formally begin exploring options for achieving financial and political self-determination.” As the makeup of the council implies, Shetland, about 170 kilometres north of the Scots mainland, has never been comfortable with the SNP’s goal of an independent, sovereign Scotland. In 2014’s Scottish independence referendum, Shetland delivered a 64 per cent vote for No.
This tension involves many small matters and one big one: North Sea oil. The classical 1970s war cry of the Scottish nationalists was “It’s Scotland’s oil,” meaning “not England’s.” But if you look at a map of North Sea wells you’ll quickly understand the Shetlanders’ answer, “Sorry, whose oil did you say it was?” The archipelago belonged to Norway until the late 15th century, when the Norwegian king defaulted on a debt and the Scots seized on the opportunity to rehearse their colonizing destiny. Shetland’s native residents are still half Viking by descent, and somewhat so culturally.
British oil has gone on being treated as a national resource and, as any Albertan would guess, the revenue fluctuates. It is hard to ascertain whether Scotland comes out ahead in the long term from the United Kingdom’s fiscal redistribution scheme (which, like ours, is designed to ensure a decent level of public spending everywhere within the federation). But one thing is sure. Once you start partitioning the North Sea and assigning oil resources to the nearest rock, you are inviting Shetland to join the game.
Against the background of oil and Scottish devolution, the Shetland News item on the council debate makes for exquisite comedy. Reporter Chris Cope describes local frustrations with SNP decision-making, which seems no nearer or more sympathetic than Westminster’s was before devolution.
Shetland won a small victory in 2018 when a parliamentarian complained that official U.K. maps always put the archipelago in an Alaska-style box at upper right, invariably making it seem as though the islands were nestled in the Moray Firth instead of halfway to Trondheim. This crusade was adopted as British law, and official maps must now show Shetland’s distance from the mainland accurately where possible. But the leader of the council now gripes that Shetland is treated worse since it was “taken out of the box.”
The councillors who voted for the motion disagree about its precise meaning. Remarkably, the lone SNP member on council actually voted in favour of “exploring options,” because who could be against that? But he warned against Shetland taking a “back door” to reunion with the U.K. in the event of Scottish independence, a cause that is running level or better with the Union in Scottish polls. Other voters disavowed any intention of pushing for more autonomy for Shetland, but one testified, “I believe devolution was never meant to stop at Holyrood.” That, I think, is the precise sound of good old C protesting against B.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020