Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Scottish Nationalism and Ferry Woes

One of the reasons why I've become so skeptical of the prospects for Scottish secession is that I pay attention to what's going on in Orkney and, to a lesser degree, Shetland. Over the course of the last few months, ferry service to the Northern Isles has become a point of contention. The Scottish Government oversees what's called the lifeline service from Scotland to Orkney and Shetland, which entails two ferry routes to Orkney (one across the Pentland Firth from Scrabster/Thurso to Stromness, and the other from Aberdeen to Kirkwall) and one (Aberdeen to Lerwick) to Shetland.

Last year, the Scottish Government considered bids from several companies, including Serco, Streamline Shipping, and the incumbent Northlink Ferries. The bidding process was seen by the Islanders as being inconsistent, and there was a widespread belief that no consistent standard was applied when reviewing the individual bids. Serco, a company best known for its administration of British prisons, won the bid, and quickly announced a reduction of the services previously provided under Northlink Ferries' stewardship. On June 20th 2013, the BBC Radio Orkney Facebook page posted the following item:
Streamline Shipping plans to claim compensation for the money it spent bidding for the Northern Isles ferry routes. The contract was awarded to Serco Northlink last spring but Streamline claimed the selection process hadn't been properly handled by the Scottish Government. Now, the company has taken advice and believes it has a case to claim back the money it spent on the process.
Judging from various comments on the BBC Radio Orkney Facebook page, and letters to the BBC Radio Orkney Postbag program, the Islanders didn't actually have any input in the process. Orkney and Shetland are represented in the Scottish Parliament by Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott, respectively, both of whom are members of the Scottish Liberal Democrat party - this is to say, they're Members of the Scottish Parliament, but not cabinet members in the Scottish Government. The Scottish Minister for Transport and Veterans is Keith Brown, a junior member of the SNP. In essence, that means that even the representatives for Orkney and Shetland had minimal say, if any, in the bidding process - the entire process was administered by the SNP in Holyrood, rather than consulting with the local councils in Kirkwall and Lerwick.

The Northern Islanders haven't been thrilled with that. Perhaps the most prominent example of their disappointment with Holyrood's handing of the ferry situation was in April and May, when the MV Hamnavoe (the ferry that sails between Scrabster/Thurso and Stromness) broke down and had to be repaired, a process which took several weeks and left the Orcadians without a lifeline service across the Pentland Firth. The MV Hrossey and MV Hjaltland, which share the Aberdeen/Kirkwall/Lerwick route, don't call at Kirkwall on a daily basis. Pentland Ferries, a private company that runs a catamaran service from South Ronaldsay to Scotland, picked up much of the slack, but Orkney business and tourism took a hit. For their part, the Scottish Government (SNP):

  • failed to secure a replacement ferry for the duration of the Hamnavoe's repairs;
  • charged Serco Northlink a penalty for each day that the Hamnavoe was out of service - funds which apparently didn't benefit Orkney; and
  • neglected to provide any subsidy to Pentland Ferries during the period in which the private carrier was picking up the slack for the Hamnavoe.

    A group of Orcadians have formed an interest group to address these issues, an indication of a greater distrust in the Scottish Government (and the SNP by extension) and its commitment to properly ministering to Orkney's political needs. A further, non-ferry indication of this is a recent move by a combined lobby of the Orkney, Shetland, and Western Isles councils to push for more local control over their own resources. This effort addresses Holyrood's lackluster administration of the energy resources, such as wind and tidal energy projects, that have arisen in the Isles in the last decade.

    My perception, based upon these and other issues, is that there's a widespread feeling in the Isles that the Scottish Government is asleep at the wheel whenever it comes time to address their needs. In fact, there have even been suggestions that, if the 2014 referendum produces a "Yes" vote (it won't), Orkney and Shetland could retain their ties to the United Kingdom. It's not exactly the level of confidence one would expect a small but prominent group of constituents to hold in a political entity whose designs on secession and sovereignty are at all credible. And let's put this in perspective: Orkney and Shetland have a combined population of about 42,000, while Scotland itself is slightly smaller geographically and with a slightly larger population than the American state of South Carolina. The Northern Isles are a small constituency, sure; but lifeline ferry service and administration of local energy resources seem like two pretty basic governance issues that the Scottish Government (SNP) has repeatedly bungled. As with the aforementioned defense issues, that betrays a disconcerting lack of national strategy from a political entity (the SNP) whose central qualification is allegedly its mandate and ability to govern a sovereign nation.

    As I've mentioned before, I remain skeptical of the proposed Scottish secession referendum, but I'm also willing to be convinced that the SNP has a plan and a justification for secession. The wait continues.
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