By Aidan Morrison, writing from Orkney
In recent days, the news has been awash with various proposals from James Stockan, a leader of Orkney Islands Council, concerning potential alternative forms of governance for the islands. The proposed options range from gaining independence from Scotland within the UK, becoming a Crown Dependency, shifting to an Overseas Territory, or even considering a radical move towards becoming a territory of Norway! While these proposals are vast and varied, they all stem from the same root of frustration: the issues faced by Orkney and other rural communities across Scotland, such as the ongoing ferry crisis.
While Stockan’s suggestions are provocative, it is important to stress that a drastic shift in governance, such as a move towards Norwegian territory status, is highly unlikely. Nonetheless, these ideas force us to consider the structural issues that underpin these proposals, and seek real ways to address them.
There is no denying the discontent with the Scottish government’s ‘central beltism’, along with the UK government’s focus on London, which often leaves rural communities like ours feeling ignored and neglected. To challenge this, we should not be seeking to sever our ties but rather strengthening them – uniting with other rural communities and our urban counterparts in solidarity. Real change comes not from simply asking or relying on individual actions, but from the collective power of a united movement. It is only through creating a common front, capable of threatening real consequences to our governments (such as strike action and anti-cuts campaigns), that we can hope to bring about lasting, meaningful change.
The problem of swapping one exploitative economy for another
When trying to understand a potential move from the UK to Norway, it might be helpful to view capitalism as a game of Monopoly. We’re all familiar with the aim of this classic game – to accumulate as much property and wealth as possible, often to the detriment of other players. Now, if we consider the UK and Norway as two different editions of Monopoly – one themed on London, the other on Oslo – it’s clear that swapping from one to the other won’t change the essential rules of the game.
In this Monopoly game, countries like the UK and Norway would be akin to the players who managed to secure the lucrative properties early on – think Park Lane or Mayfair in the classic UK edition. These nations have amassed considerable wealth through their history, whether it is through colonial exploitation in the case of the UK, or the extraction of North Sea oil for Norway. In the process, both have contributed to and benefited from a global capitalist system that exacerbates economic disparities and fosters environmental degradation.
The ‘Global South’, on the other hand, mirrors the players left struggling with fewer and less profitable properties, consistently undermined by the wealthier players. These nations often bear the brunt of climate change – an environmental crisis significantly worsened by industrial activities like oil extraction – and are locked into economic dependencies that limit their growth and development.
Just as changing from the London edition to the Oslo edition of Monopoly does not alter the inherent win-lose dynamic of the game, simply swapping one capitalist economy (the UK) for another (Norway) won’t rectify the deep-seated inequities of capitalism. Instead of focusing on changing editions, we should strive to rewrite the rules of the game itself. Indeed, we need a whole new game altogether! This means fighting for a new system that promotes global equity, sustainability, and collective wellbeing.
The issue of ‘Central Beltism’ in Scotland
Let’s talk about an issue that profoundly affects regions like Orkney: ‘Central Beltism’. This term refers to a bias in policy-making and resource allocation towards the central belt of Scotland – the region encompassing major urban areas like Glasgow and Edinburgh – often at the expense of rural and island communities.
A number of issues in Orkney illustrate this – for instance, in the state of our public transport, particularly the ferry services. Orkney is an archipelago, and its islands are highly dependent on ferries for commuting, commerce, and essential services. Yet, our ferry fleet is ageing and under-resourced, struggling to meet our community’s needs. Furthermore, the A9, one of Scotland’s key arterial roads that connect the Highlands and Islands with the rest of the country, is in dire need of repair.
Another stark example lies in our energy tariffs. Despite the Highlands and Islands being a net exporter of renewable energy and using almost 100% renewables for domestic energy, we face some of the highest energy prices in the UK. This contradiction is a direct consequence of policies that prioritise the interests of big businesses over rural communities.
A recent incident that illustrates this issue is that of the SNP’s Kate Forbes. When appointed as Rural Affairs Minister, she stepped down, perceiving the position as a demotion. Representing a rural community herself – the Western Isles – her reaction is a dismissal of the interests and concerns of her constituents.
It is important to note that this isn’t an issue unique to Scotland. If we zoom out, we can see similar dynamics at play between Scotland and Westminster. The interests of ordinary people in Scotland, particularly those of its rural communities, often take a backseat to the needs of big business in London. This ‘urban bias’ is inherent in the structures of capitalist economies, not just in the UK but across the world.
In a game of Monopoly, the areas with the most footfall — the ones closer to the Go square — tend to get the most attention. This parallels the urban bias we see in capitalism where bustling urban centres, akin to these prime Monopoly properties, draw more resources and policy focus. But just as a balanced and fair game would ensure every square on the board is equally important, we need an economic system that recognises and respects the value of all communities, be they in bustling cities or remote islands.
Norway’s urban bias: A different stage, same play
While considering the Nordic way may seem like an enticing prospect, it’s essential to recognise that Norway is not immune to the urban bias that plagues our current economic model. This is akin to changing the Monopoly board once more, perhaps to a picturesque Norwegian edition, only to find the same game rules apply.
Norway, while often lauded for its high living standards and robust welfare state, is subject to the same systemic issues we’ve discussed. Just like in Scotland, with the uneven distribution of resources favouring the central belt, or the overwhelming influence that big business in London holds over the rest of the UK, Norway’s urban centres such as Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim command a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth and political attention.
However, it’s important to note that this does not translate into a life of luxury for the average urban worker either in Norway or in Scotland’s central belt. The ‘urban-rural’ divide is often a distraction from the true culprit – the exploitative nature of capitalism itself. While cities may seem wealthier or more developed, they are rife with their own set of challenges – skyrocketing living costs, rampant wage stagnation, job insecurity, and gentrification.
These challenges disproportionately affect migrants, refugees, and people of colour, amplifying the injustices they face and deepening societal inequities. It is not a matter of urban workers living in luxury at the expense of rural communities, but rather both urban and rural workers being exploited by the same capitalist system. The problem lies not with our fellow workers, whether they reside in urban or rural areas, but with a system that consistently privileges capital over people and communities.
Despite its reputation for societal equality, rural communities in Norway often grapple with challenges akin to those in Orkney and the rest of Scotland. Public services, infrastructure, and investment predominantly favour urban centres, leaving rural areas to make do with ageing infrastructure and scarce resources. This urban bias can lead to serious disparities in living conditions between the urban and rural areas. For example, rural areas in Norway often face higher mortality rates, a reflection of the inadequate healthcare services compared to their urban counterparts. Similarly, lower income levels in these regions indicate a lack of lucrative job opportunities and economic development. Just like in the case of the UK, this bias towards urban areas can lead to increased living costs and decreased accessibility of essential services for rural communities, further exacerbating these socioeconomic issues.
A move to Norway may not rectify the issue of ‘central beltism’, but rather repackage it. Instead of the Central Belt of Scotland or London, it would be Oslo or Bergen where the decisions are made and resources are allocated.
James Stockan: Whose interests are at his heart?
Council Leader James Stockan’s proposal, a well-known figure in Orkney, has a significant presence in the local property market. This paints a picture of his interests, which are, through his assets, tied to the capitalist market.
There’s a particular aspect of Stockan’s policy that has attracted considerable scrutiny – his lack of fight against short-term property rentals, like Airbnb and holiday lets. These rentals, while profitable for property owners, can have significant adverse effects on local communities. They can inflate property prices, making housing less affordable for local residents, and disrupt community cohesion as houses turn into temporary accommodations for tourists. When homes are taken off the residential market for more profitable short-term lets, local families struggle to find affordable housing.
Stockan’s capitalist leanings are also evidenced by his recent reception of an MBE for the King’s birthday, a recognition that aligns with traditionalist, conservative values. His simultaneous call to leave the UK strikes many as a contradiction. It seems his ties to British institutions remain strong when advantageous, yet he’s willing to sever those ties if a better financial opportunity arises.
It’s important to ask: who would truly benefit the most from such a move? Surely, Stockan believes his proposal is in the best interest of Orkney. However, does his vision cater to the needs of all Orcadians, especially those relying on public services – and people who need affordable housing? Or does it primarily serve those, like Stockan himself, with extensive property interests and investments?
Change is indeed necessary. We are all united in our desire for a better Orkney, but it’s crucial to ensure any change we pursue aligns with the interests of all Orcadians, not just the wealthy few. That is why we need to examine these proposals critically and question whether they truly address the root causes of our problems, or simply put a fresh coat of paint on the same old issues.
Who is Stockan really battling for?
James Stockan’s recent proposal has certainly grabbed headlines, and many Orcadians see this as just another media circus. But some locals argue that he’s playing a long game, using these attention-grabbing suggestions to force the issues of ferry prices and ‘central beltism’ into public conversation. The goal, they say, is to push the Scottish Government into action.
Let’s consider this for a moment. If we think of the situation as a game of Monopoly, Stockan’s move is like loudly threatening to flip the game board unless he gets more money from the bank. The argument is that this rhetoric will force everyone to pay more attention to his cause. But what if the bank, or in our case, the Scottish Government, isn’t convinced by such tactics?
Take the ferry scandal impacting the Western Isles, for instance. This has been a contentious issue for years, widely discussed in public discourse, yet no effective action has been taken. The ferries are still a disaster. If public conversation were enough to spark change, wouldn’t we have seen improvements by now?
Next, let’s consider Stockan’s track record. If he truly were ‘batting for Orkney’, why won’t he oppose holiday lets and Airbnb, enterprises that have been detrimental to local communities? Why didn’t he put up a fight when the council tax rose by 10%, the highest rise in Scotland, especially during a cost of living crisis?
It seems that what Stockan is doing, albeit inadvertently, is demonstrating how capitalism functions. The wealthy try to tip the game in their favour, causing disruptions when they feel threatened. Meanwhile, the community’s needs are largely sidelined.
For Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, rural communities in the Highlands, and indeed, across Scotland, what is required is not merely an individual grabbing headlines, but a united front. A robust coalition of local communities taking direct actions such as peaceful protests, potential occupation of public spaces, and taking industrial action could be the means to call attention to the urgent need for well-funded public transportation, a comprehensive overhaul of ferry services, and an end to the austerity that leaves our communities high and dry. Together, we have the power to apply significant pressure on the Scottish Government, necessitating a genuine response. Change within the government seldom results from mere requests or solitary acts; it requires unified, concerted pressure to stimulate action and deliver justice for our communities.
A socialist alternative
So, what is the alternative? The socialist perspective advocates for an entirely different approach: moving away from a for-profit system, based on exploitation and towards an economy controlled by the working people.
Think of our Monopoly game once again. In the current capitalist version, few people accumulate most of the wealth, while the majority struggle. But imagine a different game – one where everyone has an equal chance to thrive, where resources are allocated in the interest of the many, and where the focus is on cooperation rather than competition. This is the vision of a socialist world.
To achieve this, we need to unify. Orkney, alongside other rural communities in Scotland, must show solidarity with urban communities and together demand a fairer system. We need to leverage our collective power to challenge the capitalist status quo and strive for a socialist Scotland, independent of British capitalism.
To foster this change, we need to reject the notion that privatisation is the solution. The everyday working people of Island and rural communities across Scotland, as well as its urban centres, and beyond, need access to public transportation, utilities, and other key sectors that are democratically controlled, publicly owned, and operated with the intent of serving the community’s needs rather than generating profit.
But our unity must not stop at the borders of Scotland. To truly challenge the global capitalist system, we need to be part of a broader workers’ movement in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and indeed, the rest of the world. This is a fight not just for the liberation of Orkney, or Scotland, but for the liberation of the entire working class.
Our struggles may be local, but their roots are global. By uniting and standing in solidarity, we can strive for a world that serves not the few, but the many. And that, my fellow Orcadians, is the true game changer.
Building the movement for socialism: United we stand
To bring about the changes we desire, it’s crucial to build the movement for socialism. But why is this movement so vital? Our unity is our strength. We can draw a parallel with the Monopoly game here. In the current version of the game, it’s each player for themselves, and one person ends up controlling all the resources while others are left with nothing. But what if, instead, the players decided to unite and build a new game and new system, to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive?
If we, the working people, come together and fight for a different system – one where wealth and resources are equitably distributed, where everyone’s needs are met, and where people and planet come before profit – we can rewrite the rules of our socio-economic ‘game’.
Building this movement means fostering solidarity among workers across industries, regions, and borders. It means educating ourselves and others about the inherent inequalities of capitalism and the alternatives that socialism offers. It means taking collective action – strikes, demonstrations, and other forms of protest – to challenge the status quo and push for change.
In the game of life, unlike Monopoly, we have the power to change the rules and the system altogether! But to do so, we must stand together, united in our vision for a fairer, more just world. Only then can we transform this vision into reality.