When Populism Trumped Democracy in Orkney

On Tuesday 4th of July, Orkney’s councillors voted overwhelmingly to explore alternative constitutional arrangements for the governance of the islands including “Nordic connections, crown dependencies and other options for greater subsidiarity and autonomy”.

Widely discussed on popular TV shows and gaining coverage in UK newspapers the motion by Leader of the council, James Stockan and his Depute Leader Heather Woodbridge, had captured the attention, as all good populists are able to do, of the media.

What are the costs associated with these investigations ? Who knows. We may have to start looking on the side of a bus, a favoured display area for populists when Facts are lacking.

Where has this great desire for constitutional reform come from? Was it a hot topic at the local elections last year? No it wasn’t.

But it has come up before. James Stockan did raise a variation of these ideas when he stood as a candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 2016. He had the support of 1,775 voters for his agenda then.

But populists never let voter support, or lack of it, hold them back, for there is always the worthy views of the random ‘man in the street’. Or as Nigel Farage likes to boast, the views of the ordinary man in the local pub.

Now discussing the constitutional future of Orkney, Scotland, the UK is no bad idea but in a healthy democracy it comes from a desire of the citizens to do so. They express this by casting their votes in elections. So for instance, holding a referendum on whether or not to leave the EU was a pledge in UK political party agendas . When people voted Tory they knew that this would happen. Similarly voters in Scotland have consistently returned a Scottish Parliament with a majority of pro Scottish Independence MSPS. Furthermore the SNP have said that at the next UK General Election a vote for them will be counted as a vote for Independence.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with those views or not – the point for our democracy is that these aims were stated clearly in the manifestos of the various political parties. Voters could then make their choice. There was some accountability.

The decision made by Orkney’s councillors, only elected last year, is not based on the democratic will of the people. None of them were elected on a mandate to spend our recently increased council taxes on investigations exploring how our islands are governed. But it plays on grievance and of whininess to people struggling with the cost of living.

Populism argues that elites are corrupt and the people need better representation, but makes very few policy commitments beyond this criticism. There’s been increasing distrust regarding political parties and politicians, especially given various funding and election scandals. And so people readily believe that these actors are corrupt and not to be trusted.

It is a message that is credible these days. It is also a message that doesn’t tie politicians down to any other ideological or policy commitment. “Populism is a political problem that is putting democracy at risk, Stanford scholars say”

The vagueness of the ‘investigations’, the use of the media, the attacks on both the Scottish and UK Governments – deflecting accountability away from the council’s own failures, the complete lack of a mandate from the electorate to use their taxes for this purpose – all of this is a warning about the populism which has taken root in Orkney’s Council Chamber and the cost is democracy.

Fiona Grahame

a giant eye with the word Viewpoint at the top

10 replies »

  1. It’s an interesting diversion, not because of the content, which is utterly spurious, but in that a council seems to feel it is mandated to deal with constitutional matters, and utterly without that mandate even having been mentioned at election time, let alone sought.
    Perhaps we’ll have our car park attendants arresting people next.
    As Steven Heddle rightly says, this is indeed grievance politics, designed to cause deliberate uproar, and carefully organised to enable the propagation of misleading headlines, biased reported and downright lies in the media in support of whatever agenda the Tory press decides to pursue to detract from the party’s collapse into incontinent incompetence.
    In the meantime, the cavalier attitude and nonsensical aims are being used to batter Orkney from all sides and will persist even when this has been rightly dismissed as merely using the ludicrous for lucre.

    • Eamonn – your way with words….

      “incontinent incompetence.” “the ludicrous for lucre.”

      ‘The Lord of the Isles’ will have you on his hit list!

      I’m remembering when Steven Heddle was Convener……

  2. Underline, in capitals and bold…..

    “as all good populists are able to do….”

    Yay yay and thrice yay Fiona – another good one.

    When he got his ‘honour’ I thought – he’ll think he can do anything he wants now.

    By the by – is Charlie Three – a man known for his concern for the environment and wildlife – aware that he’s given an honour to someone who intends to build turbines on an important breeding ground for seals?


    Presumably not.

    So it goes – honours at given to the wrong people – the harm they’ve done is only made manifest later – when it’s too late to amend the harm done.

    Think Trump…think Johnson…think….King James?

  3. Populism is precisely what brought the SNP to power in the first place.
    The White Paper on independence produced in 2014 was merely a wish list with no proper costings to set up an independent Scotland. When they actually come clean with the astronomical costs that would be inflicted on the “man in the street”, together with the huge cuts in public spending, and there is no chance of that under Humza, then the voter will be able to make a considered judgement.

    • Scotland, the only country in the history of the world not to be able to afford independence, according to its neighbour/owner which itself currently owes its entire GDP in debt.
      It reminds me of what was said about Malta in 1959.
      “Malta cannot live on its own … the island could pay for only one-fifth of her food and essential imports; well over one-quarter of the present labour force would be out of work, and the economy would collapse without British Treasury subventions.‘
      Add to that a similar commentary on other nations such as Norway, Iceland, Slovakia, and another ex-British colony which celebrated its Independence Day yesterday, on July 4th.

      I’m sure they must have faded into oblivion by now, anybody know what happened to them all?

      • You seem to be in denial that the price for going independent would consign generations to economic pain. But perhaps that’s of secondary importance.

  4. I thought those purposes weird when I heard on the news. I hope that is only a scream for attention, as the Orkneys are quite alright in Scotland, one of the finest countries in the world, independent or not – eventually independent I’m sure. Don’t blame all the time on populists, they are so unimportant if you don’t promote them. And I LOOOVE Kirkwall ! And Stromness ! And St Margaret’s Hope! What great islands you are , keep that way and demand more, you deserve the higher levels of Europe.

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