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.

Shetland’s Male-Dominated Public Sphere

The dominance of men in Shetland’s public sphere is a phenomenon I have been increasingly concerned about over the last few years as I’ve grown more politically aware.  Speculating on the reasons why this is the case would most likely result in an ignorant and uninformed conclusion without proper research, so I will not attempt to do so.  However I do want to highlight several areas where I see a problem.

In terms of political representation, Shetland is blatantly governed by men.  Every single Member of Parliament and Member of the Scottish Parliament the islands have elected have been men.  Perhaps this is because few women even make it onto the ballot paper – last year I wrote a letter to the Shetland News outlining the problem:

   “With the selection of party candidates for the upcoming election a relatively topical issue, I decided to take a look back at previous elections to see which parties normally field candidates for Shetland and Orkney.
   Upon doing so I was shocked to discover that every party’s candidate has been a man since at least 1997. There hasn’t been a single woman on the ballot paper throughout all this time.
Wondering whether this was just a fluke, I had a look at Shetland’s constituency for the last four Scottish Parliament elections. In the 1999 and 2003 elections every candidate was a man, while in the 2007 and 2011 elections all the candidates except one were men, the woman both times put forward by the SNP.
   To compare this nationally: 20 per cent of Scottish MPs and 33 per cent of MSPs are women, suggesting that at least a fifth of constituencies had at least one woman on the ballot paper.”

I added:

   “Thus far only the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have announced their candidates for this May’s election, both of whom are men.
   I will be keeping a close eye on future announcements from Labour, the Conservatives, UKIP and any other parties to see whether they will allow yet another election to be contested entirely by men.”

Unfortunately, the Labour, Conservative and UKIP candidates all proved, once again, to be men, making 2015 the fifth Westminster election in a row in which there was not a single woman on the ballot paper.  Although still overwhelmingly men, candidates for the Scottish Parliament’s Shetland constituency have continued to see better balance; for example, Labour fielded the excellent Robina Barton in last May’s election.  Nevertheless, 94% of votes ultimately went to male candidates.

As I stated in the letter, the same problem exists in the Shetland Islands Council (SIC):

“I discovered that only three of the 22 councillors are women – just 13.6 per cent. This is below the still shockingly small national average of 24.3 per cent.”

This inequality also includes leadership positions, with both the current Convenor and Political Leader of the Council being men.  As far as I’m aware, this has always been the case.

The same trend occurs if you look into the Shetland Charitable Trust, arguably the second most important public institution across the islands, controlling significant income from oil revenues.  The trustees are appointed from across Shetland society and include individuals with a background in the SIC (including current serving councillors), the police force, the NHS, the Church of Scotland, crofting and marine policy.  A good range of expertise, but unfortunately only two of the 14 are women.  At 14.2% this is virtually the same proportion as the SIC’s 13.6%.  For an organisation intended to provide funding for charitable causes and projects across the isles, this is a stark gap of experience and background.

The dominance of men also seems to include the press.  The majority of journalists in the Shetland Times and Shetland News appear to be men – although granted, this isn’t unusual in a national context.  It’s also true that, although the majority of The Shetland Times’ editors have been men, between 1990 and 2006 it did have a woman editor in Vaila Wishart.  Nevertheless, the current news team of the Shetland Times appears to consist entirely of men.

Moreover, if you take newspapers as a key forum for debate, the pattern continues.  In the most recent publication of the Shetland Times there were eight letters submitted to the editor, all written by men. (Interestingly, six were about the EU Referendum, with four of the six expressing support for Brexit, despite the fact that almost 57% of Shetlanders voted remain.  Is the male-dominance of the public sphere creating a right-wing, eurosceptic echo chamber?).  Similarly, all of the most recent contributions to the Shetland News letters page were penned by men.  Indeed, these pages tend to feature the same men, arguing with the same people, again and again.  In my experience the Facebook comments of the news outlets see more representative contributions – of both gender and age – but these by their nature are less public.

Perhaps the greatest example of all is the Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa, Shetland’s most famous cultural festival.  Women are prohibited from taking part in the prestigious Jarl Squads which lead the procession, ceremonially burn the Viking longship and tour across Shetland.  Their role is instead confined to catering.  The satirical website Da Bonxie recently mocked this, stating:

  1.  Up Helly-Aa is the perfect time to reflect on your failed marriage or relationship and use the opportunity to freely cheat on your partner.
     Lerwick Up Helly-Aa famously bans women from being in squads, so your indiscretions can be completely secret! Better yet, most Shetland women know it’s going on but no-one seems to care! It’s amazing!.
  2.  Up Helly-Aa is a truly special night for women. Not only do they get to let their husbands off the hook as we noted above, they also get to do housework in their glad rags!
    As women are banned from being in a squad, they attend one of 11 halls throughout the town. At these halls, they’re expected to clean, serve, cook, and help men cheat on their wives. Sounds great? Well get doubly excited ladies – you get to do all of this in your best dress and high heels! Incredible!

The Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa is allowed to be discriminatory in this way because, as a private club, it is not bound by equalities legislation.  The issue is becoming a matter of increasing discussion, with a recent (admittedly poorly-attended) Althing debate ending with a vote in favour of gender equality.  More promisingly, the country Up-Helly-Aa festivals allow women to take part, with the South Mainland Up-Helly-Aa even seeing its first female Guizer Jarl in 2015.  Yet, with Lerwick’s Up-Helly-Aa continuing to be the largest of the festivals and possessing the most status, there is still a long way to go for gender equality.  This is not so simple as a misogynistic elite preventing progress, either – there is significant support among the public for maintaining the traditions, as evidenced by this Facebook comment thread.

There are no doubt other areas in Shetland life where gender inequality is also prevalent.  However, I do need to stress that, in spite of this indisputable male-domination of the public sphere, as a whole I do not think Shetland society is significantly more patriarchal than the rest of Scotland or Britain.  Women are as active in the workforce as anywhere else, play key roles in Shetland’s cultural scene, such as in music and literature, are reasonably well-represented in professions including teaching and healthcare, and social attitudes are not generally different to elsewhere.  This makes the male hegemony of several public institutions all the more perplexing, but perhaps also suggests change would not be too difficult to achieve.

Having illustrated the problem, at some point I will probably write a follow-up post in which I try to explain the reasons behind this.  I’ve recently discovered a book called Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000 by Lynn Abrams, the former Professor of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, which looks like a fascinating read I hope will broaden my understanding of gender relations in Shetland.

If you’re reading this and you have any ideas/comments relating to what I’ve written about, I’d be very eagar to hear them!

2014 In Books

In the first part of my 2014 in review series which may or may not continue after this post, I’m going to briefly analyse the books I’ve read this year.  Unfortunately I only managed to read 31 books, down from 41 in 2013 and failing to reach my target of 43 by quite a wide margin.  My main reason for this is that I more or less stopped reading outside of my university courses between January and May due to coursework and life related things going on, so hopefully this downward movement is only a blip!  Anyhow, here’s the list:

  1. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  2. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  3. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  4. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  5. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  6. Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
  7. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  8. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  9. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  10. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  11. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  12. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  13. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce
  14. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  15. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  16. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  17. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  18. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922)– F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  20. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  21. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  22. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  23. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  24. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  25. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  26. The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison
  27. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  28. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  29. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  30. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  31. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin

And to put them in order of preference:

  1. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  2. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  3. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  4. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  5. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  6. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  7. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  8. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  11. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  12. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin
  13. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  14. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  15. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  16. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  17. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  18. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  19. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  20. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  21. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  22. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  23. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  24. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  25. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  26. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  27. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  28. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  29. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

Unrated:
Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison

—–

And here I’ve [broadly] charted on a map where each book is set or about.  Obviously fictions which aren’t set in our world, like A Song of Ice and Fire, aren’t included, and for non-fiction books I’ve had to take some liberties:

Settings 2014

Almost every book here written before 1900 is due to my English Literature course, hence why they’re so clustered together.  It’s a good mix, I think, although as the map shows there is a very strong northern European, British-American bias in the books I’ve read.  Every author, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, is either European or American – I’ll definitely try to widen the writers I read next year.  I think I’ve managed a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction; I’ve neither lived wholly in bleak reality nor untempered fantasy.  In terms of preference, I’m not surprised to see George R. R. Martin consistently quite high given I tend to rate quality of storytelling in fiction above quality of prose (I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about that in a future post!).  Otherwise there’s no clear pattern.  I need to make a caveat for Ulysses however; while it was the most excruciatingly painful novel I’ve forced myself to read, while I considered the whole thing a project to ridicule critics, upon finishing I just couldn’t get it out of my head and having looked back at it I do find a lot of worth in there.  So this does betray one potential problem with my ratings, in that I rate purely in enjoyment while reading rather than any other means, which brings me back to the discussion of value best saved for another day.

Looking forward to the great reads 2015 brings!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the books’ gender ratio.  Only 23% of the books I read were written by women, which is pretty shocking to consider.  Some of this might be down to the amount of ‘classics’ I’ve read this year, although considering these gave me Aphra Benn, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, who I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s possibly this actually buffed the number up.  Unless I’ve subconsciously given greater preference to male authors (could be similar to this phenomenon) it’s clear women still face a harder task getting represented in the most high-profile and bestselling books.

Masters of Foxhounds Association

It’s Boxing Day and I’m slightly bored, watching BBC News.  Something about foxhunting flashed across the screen, kindling my curiosity about a practice I know little about.  To find out more I took a look at their official website, ‘Masters of Foxhounds Association’.  On this website you can see photos of cute dogs, looking wistfully across stunning country landscapes alongside wise men posing in front of their farms.  Here you can choose to ‘find a hunt’, where glorious slaughter is merely a click away.  Unfortunately they don’t have a Shetland branch, but there are 11 across Scotland I could choose to join!

Oh, but what’s this?  Another link, titled “The Case for Repeal” ?  Apparently foxhunting was banned by the Labour government in 2004.  Does this mean I can’t join one of their organised massacres after all?  Here you can find a most eloquently worded and intelligently expressed case for repealing the Hunting Act.  “The prejudice, misuse of science and abuse of parliamentary process that saw the Act onto the statute book…”  This note of prejudice from such an unbiased source is particularly convincing, as well as the highly detailed explanation of how science was ‘misused’.  “The Hunting Act is unique in that its effects are entirely negative,” they say, clearly not paying attention to parliament’s legislative output of the last 30 years.  Even more shockingly, “it does nothing for the welfare or conservation of the species it claims to ‘protect’. In fact it is detrimental to their welfare.”  My heart weeps for those poor foxes who remain shamefully safe with their families.

To continue: “After some 700 hours of parliamentary time the Act was eventually driven through the House of Commons in a single day following a blatant breach of parliamentary protocol. It was then forced through using the ultimate constitutional sledgehammer, the Parliament Acts, which was used for only the fourth time since 1949.”  This is such a blatant breach of parliamentary rights that they don’t even need to explain it – we should simply feel the illiberality within our racing blood.  “The measure of a true democracy is tolerance: tolerance of minorities and, in particular, tolerance of activities that the majority might not support.”  Indeed, 8 out of 10 people don’t want the act repealed, but they’re absolutely right that minority opinion should be safeguarded despite this – and I therefore look forward to their successive campaigns for the legalisation of murder and rape.

My enthusiasm unable to be contained, I’ve decided to send an email to their general inquiries at info@mfha.co.uk.

Hello,

I’ve been reading through your website and I’m excited to get involved in any way I can.  I’ve just read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and I found the way in which the protagonist Frank treated animals most inspiring.  I particularly liked the bits where he blew up rabbits with dynamite and subjected a wasp to 12 different kinds of deaths.  This is the sort of thing I would love to get involved with.  I have two cats who both enjoy hunting very much and a Shetland Pony to ride on.  They won’t know what’s hit ’em!

Yours faithfully,

Charles Fox.”

 

A Brush with Nationalism

flying flag

As I mark two weeks of living in Edinburgh I finally have something to  post!  I’m planning to write a summary of my ever-growing experiences at some point, but as I walked through the bustling crowd of today’s independence march I knew this post would have to take priority.  Also, I apologise for the quality of the pictures – I only had my phone with me and I later realised that I left my USB connector back at Shetland, so I had to take second photos with my other camera.  Not the most efficient method…

activityI was only able to briefly witness the initial gathering before the march to Calton Hill, which seems to have become a focal point for Scottish nationalism, as I was due to attend an ‘activism training day’ (I love Edinburgh).  Even so, with the march in a semi-formed state, this was still the most significant political event I have ever witnessed.  Flags were waved, some in frantic excitement, others rippling gently in the wind; whistles blew all round, often by children too young to understand the politics but clearly enjoying the carnival atmosphere; and bagpipes filled the air.  I once wrote about a fictional demonstration – which is, admittedly, a completely different context to here – and I’m glad I at least got the tone right.  Such joy, hope; visions and dreams were palpable through the crowd.  Whether these are justified is a different matter, yet almost didn’t seem important at that moment.  This march created an idyllic vision; cold reality can come later.

greensI was also struck by the vast variety of groups coalescing into this unlikely alliance.  I was most excited to see the Scottish Green Party who had a section in the crowd, though I was too shy to say hello.  In addition I came across the Scottish National Party, the ‘Radical Independence’ group, the Socialist Worker newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Party and even a ‘Christians for socialists independence group’.  Some single-issue organisations were there too, including anti-Trident pressure groups.  I think I even saw some Catalan flags, perhaps as a bid for pan-European solidarity.  Yes, a quick Google search tells me this was the Estelada, a flag used by Catalan nationalists.  I wonder if Saltires have even flown in Barcelona, then?

policeWhat is most impressive about my experience of the march is how peaceful and ordered it was.  This feels that it should go without saying, yet my studies of history indicate time and time again this isn’t the case.  For a movement so at odds with the interests of the ruling elite to be granted such freedom must be virtually unprecedented in the majority of human history.  There was a notable police presence* but even this seemed relatively relaxed, their prime concern being to prevent overcrowding.  There wasn’t even a hint of violent tension, which again would have been unimaginable for most comparable political movements in history.

I continue to be impressed by the optimistic vision advocated by the pro-independence cause.  Whether there’s reason to be optimistic is up for debate, but I can’t imagine anywhere near a similar atmosphere at a unionist march (do these even occur?).  I wouldn’t say this brief brush has changed my view of the debate but it has made it seem all the more real and, certainly, all the more exciting.  I am thrilled to be spending the next year here at a time of such debate and political activity.

speaker

“What do we want?”
“INDEPENDENCE!”
“When do we want it?”
“NOW!”

lonely jack

A lonely union flag despairs.

Related articles:

*I’m aware of section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which brings into doubt the legality of photographing police officers.  Since I’m neither directly or indirectly helping terrorists by the publication of these photographs I know I’m acting perfectly within the law, but it’s unfortunate we must worry about such things in the first place.