“Shetland Islands Council votes to explore breakaway from SNP-run Scotland” – right-wing commentator Ian Martin on Twitter, September 9, 2020.


Shetlanders rightly prize their island culture and an independent Scotland would respect their right to autonomy, just as Denmark does with the Faroe Islands. Unlike Ian Martin who is opposed to Scotland’s right to choose.


On September 9, Shetland Council voted 18-2 (with two members absent) to support a motion to explore options for achieving “financial and political self-determination” for the islands. This was reported on right-wing social media as a blow against the SNP Government in Edinburgh, and against the independence movement as a whole. The charge was led by commentator and arch-neoliberal Iain Martin, former editor of The Scotsman.

Though a long-time, vociferous opponent of Scottish Independence, Martin seemed almost gleeful at the possibility of an island breakaway from Scotland: “It will be interesting to see how the SNP Government in Edinburgh responds to a campaign for self-determination that could break up Scotland. Will Nicola Sturgeon allow the Shetland Islands a referendum? Who will set the question?”


Like all island communities, Shetland (population 23,000) has its own distinctive politics. It recorded the fourth-highest No vote in the country in the 2014 independence referendum, at 64%. Shetland also voted 56.5% in favour of Remain in the EU referendum, lower than the 62% across Scotland as a whole. Whalsay and South Unst, which is a major fishing centre, recorded a Leave vote of 81%.

Nominally, 21 of the 22 Shetland councillors are independents, with one official SNP member. However, most of the so-called independents have a party or political allegiance, with a significant group traditionally leaning towards the LibDems. Last year, the LibDems held on to their Shetland seat at Holyrood in a by-election, despite a strong challenge from the SNP. Their candidate was Beatrice Wishart, previously the “independent” deputy leader of Shetland Council.

READ MORE: Shetland Islands 'exploring options' for self-determination

However, the motion to explore options for self-determination was actually formulated by three councillors associated with the Wir Shetland movement, which campaigns for more autonomy for the islands. Historically, Wir Shetland has demanded self-governing Crown Dependency status for Shetland, like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. However, the motion passed was worded to avoid a specific constitutional model. This allowed other councillors to support the move. This included Robbie McGregor, the SNP councillor, who said he supported the motion as long it was not interpreted as a “back door” way of getting “us into a relationship with what’s left of the UK after the Scottish independence referendum”.

This suggests that the vote to examine options for self-determination was less a strategic move towards autonomy and more a protest against the squeeze on local authority budgets and lingering resentment at alleged centralisation by Holyrood. The preamble to the motion reads: “We believe that Shetland has the wherewithal to have a positive future. However, in recent times we have seen more and more decision making being centralised and public funding being consistently reduced. We are concerned that this ongoing situation is seriously threatening the prosperity, and even basic sustainability, of Shetland as a community.”

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It is difficult to deny the squeeze on local authority funding though it is fair to say this is ultimately the result of Treasury austerity impacting on the Holyrood bloc grant. However, councils across Scotland have been under financial pressure since the 2008 banking crisis. According to Cosla, Scottish local authorities have seen £898.8 million cut from non-ring fenced revenue budgets in real terms since 2013/2014 alone. This year, Shetland Council had to draw down £8.5m from its reserves to balance the books. From this perspective one might see the passing of the “self-determination” motion as an opening skirmish in the 2021 budget battle with Holyrood.

READ MORE: 'Astounding': MSP backs Shetland autonomy while defending Tory power grab

Does Shetland have grounds to say it has been uniquely affected by council budget cuts? Shetland Council is responsible for running an inter-island ferry service, partly subsidised by the Scottish Government. There is a longstanding feeling on the Council that the Scottish Government has failed to fund this service adequately – the prime cause of the council having to dip into its reserves.

On the other hand, Holyrood has been addressing the particular problems faced by Scotland’s island communities. In 2018, the Scottish Parliament passed unanimously the Islands (Scotland) Bill. This historic legislation imposed on ministers a legal duty to prepare a "national islands plan" for the long-term improvement of Scotland’s island communities, and also provided extended powers for island councils over areas such as marine licensing. An amendment by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott barred public bodies from putting Shetland in a box on maps of Scotland – a longstanding grievance in the islands.


The Shetland Council motion does not specify what options will be investigated but the self-governing Faroe Islands, which are part of Denmark, have been cited by some Shetland autonomists as a blueprint of how the islands could be run. The Faroes (population 50,000) have control over energy, environment, taxation, trade and education, as well as the management of fisheries and natural resources. The Faroe Islands have their own elected assembly, and a government headed by a prime minister, and send two representatives to the Danish parliament. While Denmark is part of the European Union, the Faroes are not.

There is clearly a sentiment for greater autonomy in Shetland. This can be seen in the recent formation of the Shetland Regional Democratic Party (SRDP) which wants Shetlanders to have “a proper, accountable voice in Holyrood and Westminster”. The SRDP is led by councillor Ryan Thomson, who signed the self-determination motion.


There is nothing to stop Shetland having greater autonomy after Scottish independence, just as the Faroe Islands have autonomy from Denmark. In fact, the SNP have long been sympathetic to island self-government. In the 1987 General Election, the pro-autonomy Orkney Movement won 15% of the vote, helped by the SNP’s decision to stand aside in their favour. Contrary to the assertions of Iain Martin, the passing of the Shetland Council motion on “exploring options” for self-determination does not spell a move towards the islands seeking union with England, after a successful indyref2. Quite the opposite, in fact.


More Unionist wishful thinking.

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