How Shetland Became a Stronghold for the Liberal Democrats

The following is an article commissioned by a publication which ultimately chose not to run with it before the Shetland by-election (I think Boris and Ruth’s shenanigans might have taken up most available space), so I’m publishing it here.  Although intended to be read before the results of the by-election were known, I think it mostly holds up – and my final conclusion turned out to be accurate!

The upcoming Scottish Parliament by-election in Shetland, triggered by Tavish Scott’s resignation, provides an opportunity to take stock of the position of the Liberal Democrats in the islands.  Alongside Orkney, with whom it shares a Westminster constituency, Shetland has more consistently voted for the Liberal Democrats and its Liberal Party predecessor than any other part of Britain.  The party has topped the poll at both constituency and list level in every election since the Scottish Parliament’s creation twenty years ago, while it has held the Westminster constituency since 1950, usually with clear majorities.  After Scott’s landslide re-election in 2016, Shetland became the safest seat in the Scottish Parliament.

When discussing Shetland’s Liberal roots, writers and commentators have tended to focus upon two factors.  The 1886 Crofters Act, passed by William Gladstone’s Liberal government, granted security of tenure to crofters and is often portrayed as a bedrock of support for the party in Shetland.  This argument states the Crofters Act established the good will and trust which left the electorate more open to appeals by future Liberal candidates, many of whom certainly invoked the Act in their campaigns.  Yet, while the Liberal Democrats have traditionally performed well in the crofting counties, only Orkney and Shetland have rewarded the party with such large and consistent electoral victories, suggesting further explanations are required to fully explain the party’s success.

The second factor frequently raised to account for the party’s hegemony emphasises the popularity of Jo Grimond, the isles’ Member of Parliament between 1950 and 1983.  Although an outsider to Shetland when first contesting the constituency in 1945, Grimond’s down-to-earth approach and ability to respond to local concerns quickly garnered support.  He averaged 57.6 percent of the vote in the ten elections he won compared with the 48.5 percent average maintained by his successors at Westminster, indicating the presence of a certain ‘Grimond factor.’  Nevertheless, the fact that Jim Wallace, Alistair Carmichael and Tavish Scott were each able to secure the party’s position in Shetland demonstrates we need to look beyond Grimond, as important an influence he undoubtedly proved to be.

Beyond these widely repeated arguments, Shetland’s liberal tendency can partly be explained by its demographic and economic structure, particularly where this served to weaken the Labour Party as a viable alternative.  In the postwar decades, almost twice as many homes in Shetland were owner-occupied than rented from the local authority.  Social housing tenants historically comprised a core voter base for Labour in the postwar years – 70 percent voted Labour in 1964 – thereby limiting its voter base.  Similarly, Shetland possesses an older demographic profile to the rest of Scotland, further limiting Labour’s voter base to the benefit of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats.

The party has benefitted from a lack of class identification in Shetland, a factor which has also tended to suppress support for Labour.  This stems from a combination of the islands’ close-knit community and their economic structure, traditionally dominated by small-scale industry.  Regardless of the truth of this claim – and real inequalities continue to exist in the islands – this sense of ‘classlessness’ has broadened potential support for the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, who generally have a greater appeal among voters with less class identification.

Liberal and Liberal Democrat candidates have capitalised on this by casting themselves as representatives and guardians of Shetland’s distinct interests.  Their ability to connect to local concerns can also explain the party’s wider appeal in rural Scotland but has proved particularly potent in the Northern Isles, where distance from the Scottish mainland increases logistical pressures and emphasises the importance of strong parliamentary representation.  Whether contrasted against portrayals of the Labour Party’s ‘urban’ socialism, the centralising impulses of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher or the SNP’s perceived Central Belt bias in recent years, party candidates have successfully argued that only they can be trusted to champion Shetland’s specific needs.

Curiously, this image was forged despite the Liberal Party finding itself at odds with the Shetland community on two key constitutional questions in the postwar period.  Advocating both European integration and Scottish devolution, the party’s stance was rejected by Shetlanders in each referendum held in the 1970s.  These results prompted Grimond to remark, perhaps only half-jokingly, ‘I have always suspected they did not know what I stood for.’  However, Shetland’s stance on these issues has since come into alignment with Liberal Democrat policy.  The electorate followed the Scottish national trend by endorsing devolution in 1997 and voting to remain in the European Union in 2016, while the party’s opposition to Scottish independence currently represents the majority view in Shetland as expressed in the 2014 independence referendum.  As the party now most clearly aligned to Shetland’s constitutional preferences, the Liberal Democrats have managed to establish a new foundation of support in the constituency.

The Liberal Democrats enter this by-election benefitting from Shetland’s strong liberal tradition, a favourable demographic profile, an association with local interests and an alignment with the community’s constitutional preferences.  Considering the party’s recent national revival fuelled by opposition to Brexit, its candidate, Beatrice Wishart, would be excused for expecting an easy win.  Yet, SNP candidate Tom Wills has run an energetic and well-resourced campaign which has seen numerous activists and party figures travel to the islands, including three separate visits by Nicola Sturgeon.  After achieving a record 37.8 percent of the vote in the 2015 Westminster election – albeit falling to 23.1 percent in Holyrood the following year and then 29.0 percent in the 2017 snap election – the SNP clearly believe victory is a distinct possibility now the seat lacks a popular incumbent.  However, opposition to independence and accusations of a centralising agenda place an upper ceiling on the SNP’s support which will be difficult for the party to overcome.

Lower turnout and the opportunity to cast a high-profile protest vote can make by-elections difficult to predict, and with ten candidates standing the vote will likely be particularly split.  Nevertheless, following 70 years of unbroken success and maintaining strong fundamentals, the Liberal Democrats should still be considered clear frontrunners.

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