Thoughts on the Shetland by-election

As the polls close in the Shetland by-election, hopefully Tom Wills has snatched the seat and is now the first SNP MSP for the islands. Tavish Scott, who has been the MSP since the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, resigned to begin a new career with Scottish Rugby. The association with the LibDems (through their varying forms) in the Northern Isles has had a historic longevity unmatched elsewhere in the country that has only in the recent past shown signs of decline. Tavish Scott, Liam MacArthur, Alistair Carmichael, Jim Wallace and Jo Grimond have been the only names to succeed in national politics for Orkney and Shetland in not only my lifetime but more or less that of my parents. What sets these men apart from many others in their profession however is the great personal following that they enjoyed. Generally decent people who served Shetland well over the decades, the votes cast tended to be as much for them as individuals rather than a blanket party vote. It is a small place and people like to know who is who and who there faither was and it would be extremely difficult to hold office if your first priority was to your career rather than your constituents. Much as I disagree with their politics personally, they do have to be respected for the length of time that they managed to make the islands a LibDem stronghold. As much as we repeat the line up here however that it is man not party, you cannot escape the fact that is probably not entirely true and is yet another example of uniqueness for which the islands are famed. Physically set apart from the rest of Scotland, there can be a sense amongst the population that they are not entirely Scottish. A mix of Celt, Scot and Norse bloods coupled with the geographic isolation from the mainland harvested an innate sense of difference and possible distrust of what passed as popular politics further south. The LibDems slipped into this mindset perfectly; the third party of politics, they were slightly different from the others; the small guys fighting against the bigger boys telling them what was best and it was this kindredness between islander and party that allowed them to go from strength to strength. Even when the LibDems joined forces with the Tories, people felt it was the “other” LibDems , it wasn’t the party that held sway in the north and that they voted for! Even when the SNP surge began and took hold of almost everywhere in Scotland, it didn’t succeed there. The SNP have over the years fielded strong candidates who have narrowed the vote gap considerably with Jean Urquhart and the late Danus Skene performing particularly well. This election, the two strongest contenders are both local. SNP contender Tom Wills, a Bressay bairn, is the son of local reporter Jonathan and is very well known already. Beatrice Wishart for the LibDems is a constituency worker for Tavish and also local councillor and she too boasts established credentials. My gut feeling is that Danus narrowed the gap to such an extent in the last few years that Toms youth, optimism and desire for change will be enough for an extraordinary win which will leave national politics reeling. Long held beliefs of independence from Scotland, never mind the UK, would be another reason why an SNP win here would be truly remarkable. As with all campaigns, in the midst of the geniality (for the most part) between candidates, there will always be attacks and counter attacks. The act that caused the most consternation this time was the graffitiing of a war memorial alluded to SNP supporters but which was also very quickly cleaned up by the same. All campaigns have moments of hilarity too and this time we have been treated to the comedy gold twitter account of Alex Cole-Hamilton who is always ready to provide more examples of buffoonery for his party. As the votes begin to be counted, no matter the end result, I think Scottish politics can stand heartened at the interest that keeps growing in local communities about their own issues and the dawning realisation of many that they too can make a difference to the world around them.