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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Scotland and "the periphery" July 2016

This speech was given in the University of West Brittany in Brest as part of a conference

Bretagne - Ecosse, contacts, transfers and dissonances. It addressed the shock Brexit vote in June 2016. (the sunset over Fyrish was on the night of voting - alas it was more like a red sky in the morning - a nation's warning.



Scotland and Brittany – Not Always the Periphery

My paper entitled ‘Scotland and Brittany – not always the periphery’ was set out in a wide-ranging historical perspective which has had to be refocused to the present day from shared experiences of Finistère and the Scottish Highlands and Islands over millennia. I was asked to explain to the implications of the actual results of the EU referendum in which Scotland voted 62% to 38% to remain in the EU as opposed to the UK rejection by 52% to 48%.

First I will question how the UK vote for Brexit from the EU on Thursday 23rd June will affect Scotland. This pits the settled will of the Scottish Parliament led by the SNP government to maintain our place as EU citizens and EU members against the Brexit Tory Government in London which is in turmoil.

Second I will review the huge benefits of EU policies which are visible for all to see in the Highlands and Islands. These are exemplified by infrastructure projects like major road bridges as well as cultural and educational impacts that include the launch of the fully fledged University of the Highlands and Islands in 2011.


Scotland and the implications of Brexit


When you view the picture of Scotland and her territorial limits offshore it shows a country with far more sea area than land. Such are the physical resources of the nation that provide its 5 million plus inhabitants with ample scope for a prosperous future along the Atlantic archipelago.

In economic terms England is Scotland’s biggest market, while Scotland is England’s second biggest market. However Scots exports to other EU countries of high grade food and drink products including whisky and farmed salmon, to name only the leading commodities, adds immediacy to the view of our European neighbours in Scottish eyes. Indeed, the release of resource potential has coincided with strong engagement with the EU in trade, education and an age-old belief in Scotland as a European nation.

The rapid development of Scottish sentiment for full self-government has carried the Scottish National Party SNP, its main political vehicle, from principal opposition to Labour in 1999 in the newly reconvened Scottish Parliament, through minority government in 2007, majority government in 2011, the near success in the 2014 independence referendum, the election of 56 of 59 MPs to the UK parliament in 2015 and return of a minority SNP government in 2016.

May 2016 saw the SNP gaining more first past the post seats than all other parties combined but on the regional vote the other parties overtook the SNP to leave it with a two vote deficit from an overall majority. However along with the enhanced Scottish Green Party total of five MSPs a majority is maintained for a future independence vote.



As outlined above the European referendum on June 23rd 2016 saw every Scottish local authority area return a ‘Remain’ vote. This set up a potential constitutional crisis where England and Wales voted to ‘Leave’ while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to ‘Remain’. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued strongly that Scotland wished to stay in the EU single market with freedom of movement its cornerstone. In contrast to the disarray in Westminster over the unexpected result, all Scotland’s parties elected to the Holyrood parliament were for ‘Remain’. Immediately after the result was announced Ms Sturgeon assured European citizens living and working in Scotland that they remain most welcome here.

The forty-two years of accumulated laws emanating from Brussels has brought engagement and many benefits from the EU concerning trade, farming and fishing support, environmental protection as well as improvements to working conditions and social rights.

Thinking of the Atlantic Arc, the EU Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions and the Sustainable Islands Network, each has made common cause for Scots interests with our maritime neighbours. Losing these links is but one small example of what might follow a hard Brexit policy pursued by the UK government.

A friend of mine Derek Louden from Tain in Easter Ross was so incensed by the Brexit result he wrote - What Has the EU Ever Done for Us? EU fund names change over the years but from Objective One to European Regional Development Fund and Social Fund the following developments have benefited. 1) The University of the Highlands & Islands; 2) The Kessock Bridge; 3) The Kylesku Bridge; 4) The Cromarty Bridge; 5) The Dornoch Bridge; 6) Free health care when we’re abroad; 7) Clean beaches and rivers; 8) Cheaper mobile calls – no roaming charges; 9) Lead-free petrol; 10) Single Market – no tariffs or customs duties; 11) Clean air – lower CO2 emissions; 12) Better food labelling; 13) Europe-wide patent protection; 14) Equal Pay legislation; 15) Working Hours limit of 48hrs (work more if you choose); 16) European Arrest Warrant; 17) Cross-border policing; 18) EU grants for medical/scientific research; 19) Break-up of monopolies; 20) Right to study abroad – no tuition fees. Yes, said Derek, but what does it cost us? It costs each of us £1.15 per week.

To maintain Scotland’s place in the EU a range of actions are being contemplated by the Scottish government and various commentators have been supportive. Clarity will be some time in coming from the UK government as it has entered Brexit without any apparent plan of action.

The Scottish government has indicated that it will seek talks with European leaders, with the London Assembly, with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the government of Gibraltar. However, the crux will come from the ways the UK government and Westminster parliament decide to treat Scotland. Meanwhile note has been taken of the federacy agreement between the sovereign state of Denmark and her dependency Greenland which opted out of the EU. Could Scotland do a reverse Greenland and stay in the single EU market while the rest of the UK opts out?

Nicola Sturgeon has said that if Scotland’s interests are not protected then another referendum on Scottish independence is ‘highly likely’. If so the permission of the UK parliament would need to be sought and agreed as was the case in the 2014 independence referendum. Such permission from the Tory government in London is highly problematic.

Sensing a change in the political mood in Scotland to the need for independence, the eminent historian TC Smout wrote on 28th June:

“Many of those who did not vote for independence last time now want to leave England to its own deluded, confused and self-congratulating new leaders. But first we need three assurances from the SNP.”

He then listed the following questions: Will the First Minister (FM) approach Spain to obtain an assurance they would not veto Scotland’s application to join the EU? Will the FM clearly state which currency Scotland will use? And, will she explain how the gap in the budget due to falling oil and gas prices might be filled?

He concluded,

“Without clearly addressing these questions, the Scottish government will not deserve to win the next independence referendum either.”

In the same issue of The Herald, columnist Iain MacWhirter pointed to the key issue of human rights.

“Scots still have EU citizenship. We have been under the protection of EU/EC laws for more than 40 years. There is a moral argument it is a violation of human rights for citizens to be deprived of that citizenship without their consent. Of course, Treaty-wise, UK citizenship takes precedence over EU citizenship and the UK is the member state, not Scotland.”

He went on to call for the Scottish government during this period of uncertainty to mobilise Scots behind a new Claim of Right, based on the 1989 Claim of Right namely:

“ ‘The sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.’ That had no legal standing at the time but it turned the UK constitution upside down.”

It’s not that the SNP has been uncritical of the EU at present. In a document published in May 2105 ‘The Europe we want’ – Scotland’s Agenda for EU Reform, Nicola Sturgeon wrote:

“We don’t think it’s perfect, we think reform is both desirable and necessary, but we believe very strongly that Scotland’s interests are best served by being members of the European Union and we will argue that case strongly and positively.”

The coming months will begin to reveal the likely direction of Scotland’s political future. In our out of the EU, in and out of UK.


How is the periphery treated under the Scottish government?

If Scotland is on the periphery of Europe, then the Highlands and Islands are communities at the edge. The sweep of history shows resilient people, often far travelled, with languages and culture that clung on in a clean but challenging environment.

The periphery had been weakened by depopulation, long distances to markets, traditional industries with limited jobs and the need to retain young people who were often bred to leave for work and further education and never return. As government grew its service provision the high costs of delivery in islands compounded underinvestment through lack of capital among subsistence farming. Threats to sustainability there have a very modern twist. Privatised services such as the Royal Mail push up costs for business as do ferry fares. The cities still attract the young and UK government cuts threaten new potential money makers such as renewable energy sources which abound.

Here are the opportunities as they appear to me. The arrival of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 brought new sympathy for the island periphery as a more proportional voting system ruled out large majorities for any government.

Serving ninety-five inhabited islands is a challenge. Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) was researched in Norway in the 1980s but only applied by the SNP government from 2007 to reduce fares. Although charges for long, heavily subsidised services to the Northern Isles are still unresolved. A curious love-hate relationship is felt for MacBrayne’s ferries. Know as CalMac, they serve the Clyde and Hebridean isles prompting much vigorous criticism in hard-to-reach communities. Though the introduction of car ferries especially roll-on roll-off has been a boon to and between the islands.







The sparsely populated Crofting Counties have all too obvious needs. Local control over their land and seas are paramount. Regarding land two examples explain why. First, 432 estates own half of Scotland’s rural land - the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in Europe. Second, the widely-supported Land Reform Act of 2003 encouraged 500,000 acres [195,300 ha] to be sold willingly to community land bodies. The SNP government has wide support to transfer one million acres from private and public lands into community control by 2020.

An SNP Islands Policy promises to increase the powers of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – the Western Isles Council, Orkney and Shetland Councils. They serve around 70,000 inhabitants. However other isles such as Skye and Arran and have another 25,000 residents. Which powers to be transferred is a major debate. And why should the remote mainland gain less than islands? This spotlights how Scottish communities suffer a democratic deficit compared to the communes of Norway and for that matter in France.

Westminster’s response to the close vote against independence in 2014 was the Scotland Act 2016. This includes the devolution to Scotland to manage the asset of the Crown Estate whose tenant farms, foreshore and seabed produce revenues collected in the Queen’s name for the London Treasury, now Holyrood can empower local people to spend these levies.

An initiative by the Scottish government to boost connectivity for the periphery targets 100% high speed broadband to reach all households by 2020. The last 20% in the remotest places is least profitable for near monopolists, British Telecoms which the UK government continues to regulate.

In1945 the North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board applied a social remit to generate power for the glens. Further depopulation led the London Labour government to set up the Highlands & Islands Development Board in 1965, rebadged in 1990 as Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to carry forward job creation and retention for the most disadvantaged peripheral areas.

Further and higher education has been boosted by the unique incorporation of thirteen colleges into the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). A network of dispersed centres attracts mature locals and international students alike. Degree awarding powers were finally granted to the UHI in 2011.

The recent success of Scotland’s food and drink industries often rests on many small producers of mutton, cheese and other products. EU Protected Geographical Indicators benefits many island products. The aquaculture industry has grown over thirty years to become a major exporter. However, it is dominated by Norwegian companies. A long-running dispute with salmon anglers over sea lice attracted to the salmon pens is under monthly scrutiny to clean up farmed fish and restock wild fish.

The recent expansion of whisky making, I count seven small independent distilleries from Thurso to Ardnamurchan, have begun production in recent years adding to the existing twenty big names in Islay, Jura, Mull, Skye and Orkney and those in mainland Highland and Argyll. Additionally, the revival of Harris Tweed as a high end fashion product has saved jobs in Lewis and Harris.

Shetland and Orkney have benefitted from levies on oil and gas facilities for 40 years which continues with the piping of gas from west of Shetland to Sullum Voe. Now the renewables revolution responding to climate change could benefit all parts of the north. Why? Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s potential in tidal and wave energy and strong winds which favour onshore wind farms though controversial for some, create many jobs and feeds the national UK grid.

Although Scotland does not control energy policy but does control planning policy, the Scottish government has been a major supporter of clean power. In some recent months 75% of Scotland’s needs were from renewable power, but UK Tory government backs nuclear power and cuts onshore wind support along with perverse grid regulation that causes huge uncertainty for Scotland’s and the UK’s climate gas reduction targets. Starting May this year Beatrice Offshore Wind’s 86 turbine are to be built in the Moray Firth. This is world leading in such deep waters. Meanwhile floating turbines are to be trialled off Aberdeenshire by Statoil and the wave and tidal test centre on Orkney does world-wide business. Indeed, Scottish expertise is being deployed at Bréhat, Ile de Groix and Le Croisic in collaboration with EDF.

Ample supplies of timber planted in NW Scotland since WW2 are now maturing from both private estates and Forestry Commission. It is used to make paper pulp, composition board, wood pellets and prime building timber for a growing number of architect designed buildings. The landscape has been transformed from war time felling that left only 3% tree cover in northern counties to 17% forest and woodland in today’s Highlands.

Scotland experiences three tiers of government. The EU controls agricultural support and sea fishing regulation as well as working conditions and environmental directives which have led to wildlife designations on land and now in our inshore seas. Conflicts arise between conservation and development, e.g. marine protection versus scallop dredging.

The UK Tory government squeezes Scotland’s room for initiative which leaves Conservatives in permanent opposition north of the Border. The Scottish Parliament has ambitions to raise the health and happiness of her people after the debilitating deindustrialisation of heavy industry and Highland depopulation. Remarkably, many examples show how a country of five million people can conjure up new types of prosperity in austere financial times that serve remote rural areas and old industrial cities alike. The SNP gains strong support in both.

The creative arts are a bright spot that build self-belief. There’s ample evidence of support across parties in local councils and Holyrood for a many forms of cultural expression. Our Parliament passes the Gaelic Act in 2006 with Edinburgh and London agreeing to fund BBC Alba TV to provide a dedicated service through the medium of Gaelic. Gaelic language nurseries, primaries and secondary schools and units are a growing sector with new types of jobs possible in public services and new enterprises aimed at repopulating many Highland and island communities.




Our disparate but complimentary cultures of Scotland and Brittany share ancient links around and across the Atlantic Arc. These are strengths for the future because as coastal people we have some of the best resource potential on the planet. Cleaner seas, cutting edge learning, sustainable food sources, a temperate climate that go with the will to make our own decisions despite remote indifference.

In 1902 Halford Mackinder, a geographer at the height of Britain’s Empire, unwittingly put his finger on our distinctive Atlantic experience when he wrote:

‘provinces that are insular or peninsular breed an obstinate provincialism unknown in the merely historical or administrative divisions of a great plain; and this rooted provincialism, rather than finished cosmopolitanism, is the source of the varied initiative without which liberty would lose half its significance.’ ()

Mackinder like many since discounted the significance of our societies joined by the ocean highway on the periphery of large nation states. We are beginning to see our lands and oceans in a new light. Once they were being polluted, but now are being systematically revalued. We can take control of our lands facing the ocean and we have the wit to make them sustainable, vibrant societies in this turbulent world. Who else would do better

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