Shetlanders are fond of saying that their nearest train station is the Norwegian city of Bergen, such is the islands’ distance from the British mainland. Perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the wild, oil-rich North Sea, the U.K.’s most northerly archipelago has a very distinctive history and identity.
But windswept Shetland — population circa 25,000 — has not escaped the political gale that blew across Scotland and the rest of Britain in the wake of last year’s defeated independence referendum.
In May’s general election, Shetland and Orkney was one of only three Scottish constituencies not to return a Scottish National Party MP. Incumbent Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael held on, by less than a thousand votes, as the SNP took 56 seats across Scotland.
The former Scottish secretary’s political future — and the future of his party in their last Scottish redoubt — now hangs in the balance.
Carmichael is under investigation by Westminster’s parliamentary standards commissioner after he admitted to approving the leak of a Whitehall memo suggesting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told a French diplomat she would like to see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister ahead of the general election. He had previously denied any involvement.
Recently passed legislation that allows the recall of MPs is not yet in force, but, if the commissioner finds against him, Carmichael’s position could become politically untenable. At the same time, a separate public petition crowd-funded over £55,000 to launch a legal challenge against the Lib Dem’s election victory. An Edinburgh court is expected to hear the case in September. Either outcome could result in a by-election.
Such political skullduggery is almost unheard of in the Shetland Islands.
“It’s not a particularly political place. People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things,” says former BBC journalist Tom Morton over coffee in a busy café near the harbor at Lerwick, the Shetlands’ largest town.
Liberals have dominated Shetland politics for more than half a century. Jo Grimond, who first became MP in 1950, is still revered for brokering a deal with international oil companies in the early 1970s that saw the construction of a massive refinery at Sullom Voe under unusually favorable terms for the local community. Almost overnight, the impoverished fishing community was transformed into a prosperous mini-state with local control over its own oil fund.
“People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things” — Tom Morton, former BBC journalist.
But the Liberal Democrats hemorrhaged support in May, and the Carmichael affair has sparked indignation among many in Shetland. More than once I was told that the MP had “brought shame” on the islands — not by leaking the “Frenchgate” memo, but by lying about it.
“The ordinary Liberals feel betrayed by what he did because they trusted him,” says Shetlander Mary Blance.
Even Tavish Scott, the sitting Liberal Democrat member of the devolved Scottish parliament for Shetland, admits that voters feel let down. But Scottish nationalists went over the top in their campaign to oust the MP, he says, adding: “I think it will rebound on the SNP.”
Scott and his party hope so — Shetland is one of just two Lib Dem constituencies to have survived the SNP tsunami in the 2011 Scottish elections. Polls suggest the nationalists could win almost every seat in Scotland next year. With the Lib Dems currently polling in the low single digits, the party needs all the support it can muster.
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On a blustery summer’s evening on Lerwick harbor, a brass band decked out in British Legion livery plays to a small crowd. The event commemorates more than 250 men who left the islands a century ago to fight in World War I. Many never returned.
As the band plays, a Shetland flag swirls in the breeze. The ubiquitous standard — the colors of the Scottish saltire in the form of a Nordic cross — reflects the islands’ own complex ties.
The islands were under Norwegian control for centuries. In 1468, the King of Denmark pawned Shetland, along with Orkney, to Scotland as part of a dowry for a royal marriage. The Danes never managed to repay the debt.
The Act of Union brought the Shetlands into the United Kingdom, but traces of the Viking heritage remain: St Magnus, St Olaf and King Harald are among the names of Lerwick’s pretty Victorian streets. Udal law, an ancient Norse legal system, still holds sway in the Shetlands’ courts. Solid Scandinavian-style timber houses are dotted across the islands.
With such a rich history, identity is a particularly thorny issue, says Shetlands-born writer Malachy Tallack.
“Most people would say they are Shetland first. Most people would say they are Scottish too, and probably British. There is no contradiction.”
Although a short-lived movement for greater autonomy emerged after the discovery of oil, the Shetlands have long been stony soil for Scottish nationalism. In 1979, the Shetlands voted against Scottish devolution. In the 2010 general election, the SNP finished a massive 41.4 percent behind the Lib Dems here.
But Shetlanders’ antipathy towards the nationalists seems to be softening.
Last September, the pro-independence vote was lower in Shetland than the national average but, at more than 36 percent, was still significant, says Tallack. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found 5 to 10 percent who would have voted yes.”
Since the referendum, the SNP’s membership in Shetland has risen more than five-fold.
“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room” — Ella Gordon, textile maker.
Often accused of centralizing power, the Scottish nationalist government in Edinburgh has set out a new agenda for the islands, promising more local powers and appointing Scotland’s first dedicated islands’ minister. This approach is proving popular in Shetland, says Mike MacKenzie, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands.
“In the past they have felt neglected by the Scottish government (and) by the SNP. That has changed,” says MacKenzie. “I’ve been warmly received. That’s partly the natural island hospitality but also we’ve been taking a pretty good message to the island.”
Shetland News journalist Neil Riddell agrees. “People always say, ‘We are as remote from Edinburgh as we are from London,’ but that isn’t strictly true. We have much more access to Scottish ministers. Before devolution there was just one U.K. minister for the whole of Scotland.”
Ostensibly Shetland has done well from the union. Oil has paid for a road network that is the envy of rural Scotland. Even small hamlets have heated swimming pools and leisure centers. Lerwick boasts both a state-of-the-art performance space and a museum that rivals those of many larger nations.
Meanwhile, a massive gas plant is being built at Sullom Voe. Many of the workers live in huge, static ocean-liners moored in Lerwick and Scalloway.
Some Shetlanders, however, question whether this so-called “second oil boom” is benefiting their community. Beyond the bar owners and the hoteliers, there is little sign of oil money trickling down. House prices have risen sharply, and a new generation of locals find themselves forced to leave.
“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room. A friend of mine was renting a one bedroom flat for £900 a month,” says Ella Gordon. The 24-year-old textile-maker lives with her parents.
Most of her friends now live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, hundreds of miles, and an expensive day’s journey, away. “Growing up in the 90s we had it so good. We could do anything we wanted. Now it’s like life is going backwards.”