Islands Matter: Island governance and constitutional change in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, c. 1965-1990, with Dr Mathew Nicolson

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Mathew Nicolson

Between 1965 and 1990, Scotland’s three largest island groups of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles underwent considerable change in their local governance structures. By 1975 the three archipelagos escaped proposals to merge them into an expansive Highlands and Islands Regional Council and gained their own tier of local government: the unitary islands councils. The 1970s also saw contentious debates on entry into the European Economic Community, the establishment of a Scottish Assembly and, in Orkney and Shetland, responses to North Sea oil. These debates had a mobilising effect on the islands’ communities, shaping their attitudes towards the constitutional structures and forms of government best suited to their island contexts. In the Northern Isles, these debates gave birth to campaigns for political autonomy which reached their peak in the 1980s.

This talk explores the factors driving local responses to constitutional change in the three island groups. It presents an argument that the island communities were influenced by an ideological conviction that their societies, economies and cultures were sufficiently distinctive on the basis of their ‘islandness’ to warrant separate policy treatment and local government structures from mainland Scotland. Members of the island communities interpreted this ideological conviction in different ways, ranging from separate policies for islands to support for decentralised local councils and, at the most radical interpretation, full autonomy. In turn, the British government frequently rejected demands for distinctive treatment for the islands. Nevertheless, it made several reluctant concessions to the island groups in this period, most notably the endorsement of islands councils as a new tier of Scottish local government. Alongside early discussions around systems for island representation and proposals for ‘island-proofing,’ this period can be viewed as an origin point for many of the ideas which came to define Scotland’s post-devolution islands policy.

Mathew Nicolson is a historian of postwar Scottish politics and society. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, which explored modern attitudes towards constitutional change and forms of government in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. Born and raised in Shetland, Mathew is interested in understanding how small island communities develop distinctive political cultures and the ways these affect relationships with their respective mainland and central government.


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