Boris Johnson has said he is keen to see power “sit at the most appropriate level” after being contacted by the leader of Shetland Islands Council on the issue of self-determination for the isles.
In a letter to Steven Coutts in November, obtained through Freedom of Information legislation by Shetland News, the prime minister also revealed he hopes to visit Shetland this year.
Councillors voted 18 to two in September to explore options for financial and political self-determination after expressing frustration over the level of cash and decision making powers handed down from central government.
Mr Coutts wrote to the prime minister and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, to request meetings to discuss options for self-determination, arguing that the status quo is “not tenable” and current arrangements “undermine the prosperous and fair future for Shetland residents we want to see”.
In a response on November 5, Mr Johnson said the UK Government “has already demonstrated its commitment to this in areas such as Greater Manchester and London, as well as in Scotland”.
“We take seriously the commitments made as part of the Smith Commission to further devolve power from Holyrood to communities across Scotland,” he said.
The prime minister said he is keen for power to rest at the appropriate level, including local government, and claimed there is “much that the devolved administration in Edinburgh could learn from United Kingdom government practice in that respect”.
“This ‘shared experience’ is just one of the many benefits that accrues to Scotland as a consequence of being part of the United Kingdom and we will always work constructively with other layers of government to ensure the best outcomes for people, businesses and jobs,” Mr Johnson continued.
“I know that you had a constructive initial discussion with the secretary of state for Scotland on October 2.
“As you can imagine, the ongoing pandemic has placed significant restrictions on my time and travel – however, the secretary of state for Scotland would be happy to meet you further to discuss the issues that you raise, and I hope to be able to visit in the New Year.”
A significant event
The Scottish Government also responded to the letter, on October 6, with islands minister Paul Wheelhouse describing the council vote as “undoubtedly a significant event” that has “generated a high level of interest in the ambition of Shetland”.
Mr Wheelhouse noted the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 introduced a number of measures to support and enhance local decision making but said he understands that local leaders “wish to conduct extensive research into the most attractive future model for autonomy for Shetland and would welcome an update in due course”.
“As I am sure you understand, the immediate priority for the first minister and members of the cabinet is the response to, and recovery from, the extraordinary impact of Covid-19,” he wrote.
“However, I have instructed officials to identify a suitable time for a meeting involving Shetland Islands Council, the minister for Europe and international development, Jenny Gilruth, and myself as minister for energy, connectivity and islands.”
Mr Coutts confirmed to Shetland News that the council did indeed meet with the secretary of state for Scotland, Alister Jack, with self-determination one of the items on the agenda, as well as Ms Gilruth and Mr Wheelhouse.
However, he said there has been no further meetings with the governments since.