Let’s hope Alistair Carmichael is true to his word about bringing some passion to the referendum debate. It may winkle out a more plausible reason for Union than the usual: It’s no too bad…and why bother changing it.
I’ve dealt with him a few times and have a memory of one occasion when he went on an unstoppable angry rant live on air that neither I nor the other guests could restrain. He shouted over us all and was genuinely cross, rather than the more usual politician’s desire to get their point across. And a BBC producer of my acquaintance recalls having to cope with a sustained nit-picking complaint in which he struggled to contain himself while making mildly threatening warnings unless some perceived slight had been corrected. In fairness, as I’ve said before, this kind of hectoring and venting of spleen by politicians is normal fare for producers and should really be recorded and played back to the voters to reveal what sour and egotistical stage villains some of our politicos are.
But I think he’s not a bad bloke for all that and will bring a bit of sound and fury. (Watch out for the occasional outspoken gaffe, of which ending the Barnett formula is but the first).
What struck me was how it sounded exactly the same and not really different at all…the same old quasi-racist mumbo jumbo about his own family becoming foreigners. I really do think some of these people need counselling. If you can think of your own son, for example as foreign, you need to worry about your medication, not your politics.
On which point, wasn’t it interesting to hear Margaret Curran on my programme trot out the same ludicrously insulting line and when challenged admit…hesitatingly… that her own family in Ireland were foreign? Somebody emailed me to say that actually, so amicable was the separation – yes the separation of Ireland – to form the Republic that in the legislation at Westminster they specifically included a line that Ireland would not be classed as a foreign country. I didn’t know that. But crucially neither did Margaret who was the one making the foreigner point – about her own family!
Ireland is of course legally a foreign state but such was the generosity of the British at the time they pointedly declined to make it so in reality and of course they effectively shared currency and allowed Irish votes in UK election. None of that namby-pamby nonsense for the rebellious Scots…Oh no…we are hated so much we will be foreigners. And we didn’t fire a single shot…
Alistair also made me groan with despair by coughing up the old Free Shetland-Orkney gambit. Has he, or Tavish, asked the islanders before throwing this into the pot? Does he have a list of the public meetings he’s held to consult them about his plans to remove them from Scotland?
I actually think all of the island communities should have their own powers. I don’t just mean Lerwick and Kirkwall but the scattered communities where people feel they have a local bond and special interests peculiar to them. I believe all across Scotland localised democracy should be lit like a fire so it can spread not to Glasgow City Council etc but down to street level to engage people in their own affairs and give them ownership of the issues directly affecting them. One reason why there is a torpor over the referendum is that people think politics and decision-making is for others and the most common thing you hear is that folk Don’t Know. I haven’t much patience I’m afraid. My answer is: Bloody well find out…
Caveat incoming…. HOWEVER…it is unclear to me from Alistair or Tavish what they are actually saying. They mention independence, devolution, control of oil, Crown dependency, staying in the UK…I know Lib Dems don’t like to make up their mind, but WOULD YOU LIKE TO MAKE UP YOUR MINDS.
Otherwise it looks like mischief-making with their own constituents, don’t you think? There is too a really thorny question of how this works out depending on the option preferred. If you think disaggregating between London and Edinburgh is tricky, wait till you introduce the laws of the seas. I looked at this once for the BBC and I swear it made my eyes cross. I’ve had a couple very happy trips to Shetland and a few pints in the Thule, but I will NEVER visit Up Helly A’ in protest at what that research did to my brain.
Here is a synopsis of what I think this implies. (I do hope Craig Murray doesn’t read this. As a expert on sea boundaries, he’ll fall off his chair laughing.)
If OS (my new shorthand) wanted to be independent they would need to establish first a popular desire and negotiate with Westminster for the right to separate, just like Scotland now. Would London happily accede to the wish or would they do the same to the islanders as they are doing to Scotland – clinging on to the bitter end and claiming the oil revenues? How would Alistair and Tavish justify breaking away from the UK when their argument for Union is the shared benefits it brings? Wouldn’t that also apply, even more so, to the islands? Then London would, I think, require to recognise the new state before the international community is invited to follow suit. Eventually, congratulations,you sons and daughters of Vikings – you are free.
Opting out of Scottish independence and remaining either a region of the UK or acquiring Crown Dependency status implies not having the Scottish NHS, the education system or social support network – unless done on an agency basis, I suppose, where services are bought in from Scotland. Would London accept that or would they want, as ever, to interfere and dictate English-orientated public services which means privatised health potentially, new curriculum, university fees. On the other hand, the islands would still have a share in Trident! Sorry…that’s flippant.
In other words, with a traceable history and identity, I don’t imagine there really would be any insurmountable obstacle to independence – as there isn’t for Scotland – or a new status within the UK, although I’d hate to think of them as not being Scottish.
Under independence there would be an entitlement to a share of the international continental shelf and wherever the line legally stops, the rule seems to be that arbitration allows the line to be adjusted to take account of mineral deposits in that area, so that, even if an independent OS had a maritime line that didn’t go far enough into the oil field area, if there was any dispute, arbitration would decide that they should not be disadvantaged from exploiting reserves roughly in their waters. That’s a Bingo result because even if the ruling declares some of the oil fields shared with Scotland in a common zone, they share the spoils. But looking at the maps, and without using my compass, I reckon most of the reserves in the north-east sector could be claimed exclusively by islanders…if independent. Even after compensating the UK (and or Scotland depending on the timing) for their prior investment and taking on the cost of decommissioning along with the UK, they could be burning boats in Lerwick Harbour every night of the week by stuffing them with £20 notes.
But I think the more likely scenario of sticking with the UK while Scotland becomes independent – in so far as any of this is likely – is much trickier. It looks to me, in my new-found role as Professor of Maritime Law, that an archipelago separated from the national mainland (England) and nearer to another state (Scotland) is only entitled to a sea border extending to 12 miles out and the area between the island groups of Orkney and Shetland. On the face of it, that would exclude all the oil and would be the correct legal position. But that hardly seems fair. The evidence seems to be that a principle of equity would again be applied so that, even if the islands didn’t legally have a right to some of the oil, any international arbitration would still allot them a share, the amount of which I don’t know. Presumably, the revenues would flow mostly south to London. And the question is, would they be told how much oil they would be entitled to in advance of taking a decision? That sounds similar to Scotland not being informed of the EU’s position because London won’t ask Brussels the question.
The lesson, if there is one, is that international law is not so much a reality but a virtual domain with an infinite elasticity and changes depending on who’s asking the questions and which territories are involved.
Similarly on EU membership international law is a bystander, as far as I can see. The EU is a club with rules made up by its members albeit paying attention to legal principles. So, if they want Scotland in, we’re in. They find a way. If they don’t want us in, they have to explain to the world why not and we approach EFTA. Want to join us, Shetland and Orkney?
Good luck to the islanders. I hope their ambitions and dreams aren’t being exploited cynically because it occurs to me that Alistair and Tavish have had many years to bring their ideas for leaving Scotland to the fore yet only do so when Scottish independence arises. Did they campaign for these changes before they were elected?
No doubt the “combative” Alistair will tell us. I’m away to dig out my boxing gloves.