Waking up to the EU Referendum result last month was a nasty shock. It was neither what I expected or wanted. I wondered what the Orcadians would make of it, but on the surface they appeared remarkably sanguine, despite Orkney having a ‘Remain’ count marginally higher than Scotland overall (62%) and receiving very significant investment from EU energy research and other projects. Neil Oliver gets it exactly right when he declared revenly:
While the world falls apart, the Orkney Isles remain the same
While this is true on many levels, it is clear that Orcadians exhibit a broad spectrum of political views although, in general, there is a lack of innate allegiance to Scotland. Here is a Scottish perspective on the Orcadian question:
Should the Northern Isles be set adrift and returned to the control of Norway and thus save Scotland a fortune in transport subsidies?
From, Does Anyone Like Midges? and 99 other improbable Scottish questions
by Jim Hewitson, Black & White Publishing, 2006
Never has a truer word been spoken in jest, certainly from as distant as 10 years ago.
The “Northern Isles”, as TV weather forecasting folk like to call Orkney and Shetland, were recently excluded from the cheaper ferry fares scheme that benefited the Western Isles – an island chain that while not entirely geographically closer to mainland Scotland is recognised as being distinctly ‘more Scottish’. Is it any wonder that a majority of Orcadians and Shetlanders don’t consider themselves Scots?
This may have something to do with Orkney’s Norse roots. In my limited experience another reason why many Orcadians do not consider themselves to be part of Scotland is the high proportion of incomers – some originating from Scotland but probably the far greater number from England. Moreover, to the Orcadians (and presumably Shetlanders too), Edinburgh feels just as remote as Westminster. There have even been recent calls among the Orkney Islands Council and elsewhere locally to examine ways of Orkney gaining greater independence – an “Orkzit” if you will. In Orkney and Shetland the Brexit outcome has just thrown a huge spanner in the works, more than anywhere else in Scotland I have no doubt.
The political framework in Scotland is complicated by the Scottish Parliament. All constituencies elect members to both Westminster and Holyrood, in addition of course to the European Parliament. Uniquely, Orkney is represented at both Westminster and Holyrood by Liberal Democrats – Alistair Carmichael MP and Liam McArthur MSP respectively. Everyone in Scotland is represented by eight MSPs – one for their constituency plus seven for their region which in Orkney’s case is the geographically vast “Highlands and Islands” region. At the European Parliament, Scotland constitutes a single constituency with six MEPs elected relatively evenly from the main parties. The regional MSPs are elected by choosing the political party rather than the individual, but you still wonder whether anybody actually knows all these people?
This is not to say that the Scottish National Party has no following in Orkney. On the contrary, they were vocal here in the Scottish Independence referendum, the turnout for which in Orkney was rather low although the ‘unionists’ still won the day. Since then, I half-expected the people of Orkney to warm to the charismatic Nicola Sturgeon (relative to her predecessor) and swing towards the SNP, but it’s actually gone the other way, both locally and across Scotland.
At the May 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections the SNP lost their slim overall government majority, while on Orkney Lib-Dem MSP Liam McArthur increased his lead over the SNP candidate by a significant margin. Turnout was higher too. The reaction of SNP member Alyn Smith MEP at this defeat was to shrug his shoulders and declare,
“Orkney is Orkney”
He got that right.