Sunday 11 October 2020

Could Shetland become independent?


Recently the Shetland Council declared that it would explore autonomy. Could Shetland declare independence either from the UK or from Scotland? Could it declare that it was autonomous from either?

In terms of law the answer is No. Shetland is part of the UK territory and does not have a unilateral right to declare either autonomy or independence. Anyone who doubts this should reflect that Security Council permanent members France, USA, Russia and China all forbid secession within their own states. No one questions that they have the right to do this. A sovereign nation state can legally forbid secession and indeed prevent it.

The United Kingdom gave Scotland a legal referendum on secession. It didn’t have to do this but chose to. I don’t think another currently existing nation state would grant such a referendum. Certainly, no European state would. But having granted one referendum it is obviously possible that the United Kingdom might grant another.

Scotland could illegally attempt to separate from the UK. This is indeed the normal route that countries take when separating. Rebellion or war has accounted for far more new countries than referendums. Sometimes such rebellions succeed sometimes they don’t. This route would of course be open to Shetland too. But I don’t think there are enough rebels either in Scotland or in Shetland, so we can safely return to the legal route.

If Scotland were to be offered a referendum on independence there is no logical reason why another part of the UK could not be offered one as well. If the Cornish National Party wished to have independence for Cornwall and it looked as if there was reasonable support for this idea, it would make just as much sense for the UK to give Cornwall a referendum as Scotland. Likewise, if Anglesey wanted independence, it would make just as much sense to offer the people there a referendum as it would be to offer on to Wales.

Having once been a country or having once been ruled by someone else does not grant one bit of territory any more rights to independence than another. If a group of people calling themselves Scots can seek independence, then so can a group of people calling themselves Cornish or Anglesonians.  Why should one group of people have more rights than another?

It might be objected that Cornwall and Anglesey are not countries. But neither were lots of other places until they become one. The map of the world is full of places that were not considered countries until they were. South Sudan is the latest example, but there are any number of others.  

But given that Scotland has no more or less right to an independence referendum than Cornwall, there is no reason therefore why the borders of Scotland as they exist now should exist if Scotland voted to be independent. Shetland could vote to be independent if it were given permission by the UK Government. But so too could Orkney and indeed any other part of Scotland.

Being an island or a collection of islands does not give people any more right to claim autonomy or independence than being a peninsular or indeed a corner in the case of Aberdeenshire.

If sufficient people in any part of Scotland voted against independence and if they felt strongly enough about it, they could demand that they were not dragged out of the UK against their will. Scotland does not have sovereignty over Scottish territory, because Scotland is not a sovereign independent nation state. Scots who voted for independence would have no right to claim the territory of those Scots who did not.

At this point the issue would be settled politically. There might be further referendums to determine which parts of Scotland wished to leave Scotland and which parts wished to stay. So, there is no guarantee if Scotland had a referendum on independence and Scottish nationalists won that the whole of Scotland would go with them. It would depend on whether places like Shetland or the Borders felt strongly enough about being dragged out of the UK against their will to do something about it. The precedent of course is Northern Ireland, where the people did indeed feel strongly enough about it.

But could Shetland be independent? The main advantages that Shetland has is that it has a good standard of living and a very high rate of employment. If it were independent, it would be able to claim the fishing rights around the islands. The right to whatever oil is left would be less advantageous. It is unclear even that North Sea oil will ever bring a profit to anyone again especially considering that the rigs at some point will have to be decommissioned and that is part of the cost.

But Shetland would have at least as good a chance as the Faeroe Islands and a rather better chance than Scotland as a whole, because Shetland lacks the disadvantages of the post-industrial Central Belt with its high unemployment and social deprivation. Control of the waters around the Faeroes as given the people living there a good standard of living and they are able to manage semi-independence from an autonomy within the Kingdom of Denmark very well indeed.

Full independence might prove as difficult for Shetland as it would for Scotland. Shetland would have to take a proportional share of the UK’s national debt, which would be more than 100% of Shetland’s GDP. It’s hard to see how either Shetland or Scotland could make a start under those circumstances. If they refused to take a share, the UK Government could simply refuse to allow them to leave, which takes us back to rebellion.

Shetland would have to decide what it wanted to do about currency. It would be hard for such a small country to have its own currency. It would be hard also for Shetland to manage without a university or a hospital that could treat serious illnesses.

If Shetland wished to separate from Scotland it’s best option would be to remain a part of the UK with whatever autonomy the UK cared to grant it. This would give Shetlanders the same rights as they have at present to live and work in the UK. They could be given at least the same sort of devolution as Scotland has at present. Alternatively, Shetland could attempt to negotiate an arrangement like the Falkland Islands have or Jersey and Guernsey closer to home. There would be advantages and disadvantages of doing so.

The main difficulty with such arrangements would be geographical. The nearest universities, large shops, hospitals and major airports would still be in Scotland.   Shetland would still trade more with Scotland than anyone else. For this reason, Shetlanders might doubt the wisdom of separating from Scotland. But by the same logic Scots might doubt the wisdom of separating from the UK. 

Despite the rather odd claim that they are somehow Vikings, the truth is that Shetlanders are much more similar to Scots and British people in general than they are to Norwegians. It matters little that Shetland was once owned by Norway, the overwhelming majority of Shetlanders descend from the Scots who settled there after Norwegian rule ceased. This is why they have Scottish surnames.  It is for this reason also that Shetlanders speak English rather than Norwegian. The only Norwegian speakers on Shetland are either from Norway or have decided to learn Norwegian.

Up Helly Aa was invented in the 19th century by English speakers and is about as authentically Scandinavian and historically accurate as Asterix the Gaul. Scots dressing up as Vikings does not Scandinavia make. But it is not because people on Shetland once were part of Norway that gives them the right to separate from Scotland, it matters not one little bit who used to live there. The right that Shetland has to separate from Scotland would be the same right (if it were granted) that Scotland would have to separate from the UK.

Scottish nationalists cannot logically demand a right for themselves that they refuse to grant to parts of Scotland that might wish to separate from Scotland. There is nothing sacrosanct about the borders of Scotland. Only when Scotland gained independence would it have sovereignty over whatever territory it owned. Prior to that any part of Scotland not merely Shetland and Orkney could decide not to take part in Scottish independence.

There is no international border within the UK at present, so what the international borders would be if a part of the UK decided to leave would be up to those living there to decide. Scottish nationalists cannot require the unity of Scotland when they themselves have fought against and undermined the unity of the UK.  

Scottish nationalists might succeed not merely in partitioning Britain, but in partitioning Scotland too.  Anyone who thinks it couldn’t happen needs to look across the Irish Sea.