Friday, 18 April 2014

It's Shetland's Oil!

Alistair Carmichael's pledge to offer the Northern and Western Isles more powers is a welcome reminder that a major plank of the Scottish National Party's platform - "It's Scotland's Oil" - is based on a hypocritical premise.

Let's start with a bit of history. The Northern Isles - Orkney and Shetland to those whose geography is weak - were primarily peopled by Vikings and under Norwegian control until 1468/9 (Wikipedia is erratic on the exact date), when they were offered as security by Christian I against the dowry of his daughter Margaret to James III of Scotland. Since the dowry was never paid, the islands could theoretically be redeemed by the Norwegians at any time.

Shetland's Up Helly Aa (BBC picture)
Far from Edinburgh, (Shetland's capital Lerwick is closer to Norway than to the Scottish capital), the Northern Isles maintain a distinctive culture strongly influenced by their environment and their proximity to the Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands and for a while even maintained their own language, Norn, an offshoot of Old Norwegian.

Shetlanders and Orcadians have consistently expressed a lack of enthusiasm for Scottish Nationalism and have never returned an SNP candidate to either Westminster or Holyrood. There have been occasional calls for independence for the Northern Isles, although these have never gained traction; the preferred option has always been greater authority for the islands within the larger United Kingdom. (Although the Western Isles also have a Viking past, they identify strongly as Scottish; their case for greater autonomy rests on being the last stronghold of Gaelic.)

graphic from The Spectator
Since the 1970s, the Scottish Nationalists have consistently based their argument for independence on the wealth offered by North Sea oil and gas. In a wholly unified Scotland, this is would feasible, as the accompanying map shows that most of the oil fields are in Scottish waters. And even though the North Sea fields are beginning to run dry, there is apparently more oil waiting to be drilled the Western Isles. (On the other hand, those whose vision extends beyond the 2014 referendum are aware that the discovery of more fossil fuel is more a curse than a blessing for the whole of humanity.)

In an ideal world, separatists who demanded to be released of the yoke of Westminster would be equally loud in their demands for freedom for the Northern and Western Isles. After all, oppression is oppression wherever it is found and it is not for the oppressors to decide who is ruled and who goes free. Ever the opportunists (remember U-turns about the euro and NATO membership), the SNP leadership are making friendly noises about more powers to the Isles, but this, as usual, is the triumph of pragmatism over principle.

As the map shows, only about a third of the Scottish oilfields are in Shetland and Orkney waters. An independent Scotland without the Northern Isles would still have significant, although dwindling, reserves of its own. But that's not the point. The key issue, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, is that if you demand the break-up of the United Kingdom and a division of its assets, then you should be honest enough to admit that there are more than two parties in this partnership. If you reject the label of Briton in order to assert your own identity, allow others to reject the label of Scots in order to assert theirs. If you reject rule by Westminster, allow others to reject Holyrood rule. Above all, ask yourself, whose oil is it, anyway?

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