Six months into the pandemic, as the public health crisis and its gross mishandling in London hardened public opinion in support of Scottish independence, Shetland made a rare appearance in UK headlines. The islands’ local authority had just voted to formally explore options for achieving “financial and political self-determination”, a move seized upon by unionist politicians as evidence of a backlash to an alien Scottish nationalism. Among just two dissenting councillors was Ian Scott, a life-long socialist who had unexpectedly succeeded three years prior in his seventh consecutive attempt to be elected as a councillor. “The people pushing Shetland autonomy, especially the councillors – all they want to do is to get in with Westminster, so that they’re part of Westminster and not part of Scotland,” he scoffs. “Some of them talk about it being a new Cayman Islands of the north. That’s the level of argument.”
That vision for Shetland holds very little appeal for Scott, whose radical politics make him something of an outlier in the council chambers. Almost all of the islands’ councillors are independents, but Scott is scathing of the label: “They all claim to be nothing, but in fact they’re all Tories and Liberals.” By contrast, Scott wears his politics on his sleeve. His first bid for election, in 1990, saw him appear on the ballot under an ‘anti-poll tax’ label. More recently, his election material has identified him as the “left alternative choice” in his adopted home of Scalloway. “I’ve always made great play of being on the left, being a socialist,” he says.
Born in Perthshire in the mid-1950s, Scott recalls feeling a sense of injustice from a very early stage in his youth. “I grew up in a poor area in a condemned cottage,” he describes. “Dad and mum worked all their lives, voted Tory all their lives. It’s one of these things – you know there’s something inherently wrong with how things are, and the older you get, you read more and you become a bit more aware.” As a student in the early 1970s, Scott was attracted to and became close to the International Marxist Group (IMG), then a powerful force on university and college campuses. “There were a lot of good people in it,” he says. “I don’t know how many of them stayed in politics after their degrees, to be honest.” Later, in 1982, Scott finally left Perthshire for good, giving in to a friend’s encouragement to give up his life in Pitlochry and move to the village of Scalloway.
“Shetland is a wealthy place,” Scott says. “But there’s nothing worse than being poor in a wealthy place.” The rising cost of living across the UK will be felt particularly sharply in island communities like Shetland, where transport costs drive up prices – and though wages tend to be higher too, “there are that layer of folks who really struggle, as there is everywhere”. One of Scott’s proudest achievements in his five years as a councillor came earlier this year, when he led a successful rebellion against council tax and rent increases proposed by council officers and the administration (or “the magisterium”, as Scott prefers to call them). His term as councillor has been marked by his consistent calls on the council to tap into its reserves instead of making cuts or raising taxes. “We have five times our annual expenditure in our reserves – an incredible amount of money,” he points out. “We’ve got it coming out of our ears, it’s just that we won’t spend it.” Among other things, Scott has called on the council to use its financial heft to invest in providing free public transport and free school meals.
With other councillors seeking to place the blame for cuts exclusively at the foot of the Scottish government, Scott takes evident pleasure in rebuking their hypocrisy. “The vast, vast majority of my colleagues would have voted Liberal, for austerity, the last time round,” he says. “I keep reminding them of that, and I can always see them cringing, and they say ‘oh no, here he goes again’. I never cease to remind them that they voted for austerity! What on earth did you expect? You voted for Alistair Carmichael, the chief Tory in Scotland.” He adds: “All I’m saying is, let’s spend a bit more money, let’s save our health service, let’s save our social services, let’s save our schools. That now seems to be some kind of extreme position.”
Most of Shetland’s present-day wealth can be traced to the North Sea oil and gas boom of the 1970s, which profoundly transformed the islands’ economy. Though the council benefited for decades from an agreement with oil companies which saw money poured into local services, very little of its income now comes directly from the industry. “North Sea oil was privatised, British Gas was privatised, British Petroleum was privatised – so we’re at the mercy of these bastards now,” Scott fumes. “The ones who say there can be no windfall tax because they have to invest.” With the world teetering on the edge of climate disaster, he accepts that a transition is now necessary, but is unsure how quickly it can and should take place. On the Cambo oil field, which was put on hold last year under pressure from environmental activists, Scott admits he doesn’t “know enough about whether or not we actually need it, or whether we have enough to keep us going during transition”.
Nationally, Scott hopes the Scottish independence movement will succeed. “On a practical level, it’s the only way we’re going to get rid of the Tories,” he says. “John Maclean came a bit late to it as well. But it is the only way that we’re going to get anything done.” At the same time, he has little faith in the SNP – who he argues bungled the 2014 vote by failing to set out a plan for an independent currency – and distances himself from the SNP’s prospectus. “I’m not convinced we need to be in Europe. I’m not convinced we need the royal family. I’m certainly not convinced we need to be in NATO.” While scathing about the state of the Labour Party (“absolutely hellish”), Scott sees too much of its historical careerism in the present-day SNP.
This touches on one of Scott’s most impressive characteristics. While despairing at the state of the left in Scotland and around the world, and holding politicians in Westminster and Holyrood in contempt, he will this week face his eighth consecutive council election, perhaps for the first time with some expectation of success. Though downplaying his influence as a lone socialist councillor, he has few qualms about spending another five years arguing with his colleagues about austerity and independence. “I think we were probably the only local authority in Scotland to have not increased council tax and council house rents, so that’s a small triumph,” Scott says. “And the folks at the top were not happy one little bit.” Laughing, he adds: “In fact, one of them said she was wondering whether to take early retirement, but it’ll depend on whether I get re-elected or not.”
- You can find the rest of our series of council election interviews here.