Let me just say before we start that no-one really thinks Shetland and Orkney are going to become separate states, although part of me would like to see it just so I could witness the sight of separatists having to deal with separatists and enjoy the feeling of Scottish schadenfreude. But the idea also raises interesting questions about what independence is and what a separate Scotland under the SNP might actually be like.

What’s happened is that Shetland Council has approved a motion on greater autonomy – the council says it wants to explore ways of achieving financial and political self-determination. Orkney Islands Council said something similar in 2017 in the wake of the Brexit referendum and has confirmed recently that it’s still thinking along the same lines. Their leader James Stockan says they want the chance to do something different if they want to.

The point the councils are making is understandable. Anyone who knows Orkney or Shetland will know how strong the local identity is and how it affects the political outlook. Many islanders feel the same way about Edinburgh that some people in Cornwall and Yorkshire – and Edinburgh – feel about London: it’s a place that doesn’t understand their priorities. Effectively, it’s the same instinct that motivates some people to support Scottish independence.

The question is what the islanders’ desire for self-determination would actually mean in practice. There’s been some talk that Shetland could maybe become a Crown dependency along the lines of Jersey and Guernsey, but I have my doubts about whether that could ever be a goer. I was on Guernsey recently and as we drove around the island, my guide ticked off all the houses that were owned by millionaires. The economy is based on financial services and tax minimisation/dodging/avoidance whatever you want to call it and it would not be a good or realistic model for Shetland.

The obvious alternative for the Shetlanders would be oil and gas, but we know how that economic model went for the SNP in 2014: badly. There’s also tourism, but if Jersey, with its beautiful climate, can’t make the tourist industry work anymore, what are the chances for Shetland? Healthcare on Jersey and Guernsey is also largely private which may be fine for an economy based on attracting rich people, but it couldn’t, and shouldn’t, work for Shetland.

I’m also not convinced, in the end, that the people of Shetland and Orkney would want Crown dependency status anyway because that’s not really the point they’re making. The reason they’re talking about autonomy and self-determination is because their autonomy and self-determination has been reduced by the SNP government, both directly and indirectly. You know all that talk by the SNP about a power grab by Westminster? Well, that’s how many islanders feel about Holyrood.

The direct part of the attack has been on revenue funding. Look at the figures. Between 2013-14 and 2019-20, the Scottish Government’s revenue funding has reduced by 2 per cent but local government revenue funding had reduced in real terms by 7% over the same period. At the same time, local government’s share of the Scottish Government’s revenue budget has declined from 34.7% to 33%. It’s a sign that the Scottish Government is prioritising central government by passing on a disproportionate share of the cuts.

The indirect attack is just as worrying. The Scottish Government likes to talk about cash increases to councils – the extra £330 million for coronavirus for example – and that’s fine as far as it goes, but the problem is it doesn’t take into account actual need – you can increase funding all you like but it can still be short of what is required. That is what has happened in Shetland and Orkney.

The other problem is the Scottish Government has also increased the list of government priorities that councils have to deliver – this year, it’s £104m for teachers’ pensions for example and another £4m for counselling in schools. In fact, the proportion of ring-fenced national priorities has increased from 34% in 2013/14 to 61% in 2019-20. In other words, council autonomy is being undermined because there’s an increasing proportion of their cash that is controlled by national government. Anyone got a phrase we could use to describe that? How about “power grab”?

The aspirations being expressed in Shetland and Orkney are essentially a response to that power grab, and what makes it particularly outrageous is that it’s being perpetrated by a Scottish Government that rails against what it says is centralised power. However, every argument the SNP applies to Westminster could apply equally to Holyrood: people have the right to self-determination, decisions are best made as close as possible to where the consequences are felt, and so on. The point is that devolution shouldn’t stop at Edinburgh – it needs to go all the way to Lerwick.

The answer – and it’s one federal unionists are constantly making – is a devolved system that maximises power at all levels, national and local. It’s an idea you can imagine attracting a lot of support in No-voting Shetland and Orkney – certainly more support than the status of Crown dependency or full independence, but the leaders of the SNP would never countenance it because they are essentially unitary nationalists. Their tactic is to rail against a state they say is centralised (but isn’t really) to create a new one that actually is.

All of that leaves us, it has to be said, in a pretty weird situation, but it also underlines one of the central flaws of the SNP’s approach. What they tell us is independence is required so Scotland’s government can reflect “Scotland’s values” but it seems to me this is just another indication of the unitary mindset. The assumption they make is that there’s one set of values we can subscribe to even though there isn’t. There can be hundreds of miles between the values of Lerwick and Edinburgh.

We should also remember why we are in this weird situation in the first place. The instinct of pretty much every politician is to keep the powers they manage to get their hands on and to try to obtain new ones. It’s the instinct that powers Brexit and it also powers Scottish independence. But listen to the councillors of Orkney and Shetland. Listen to what they are saying. Bad politicians assume their job is about obtaining power. But good politicians recognise that their job is actually about giving power away.

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