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Britain’s Weakening Image on the International Stage: New Push and Pull Factors for Devolution

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Opinion Piece

The Orkney Islands - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last month, in the Scottish Orkneys, a quaint archipelago reliant on its tourism and fishing industries, local councillors voted to support a motion proposing that the local government explore the possibility of leaving the United Kingdom to join Norway. Despite local councillors' assertion that the islands are a “long, long way from making a decision”, comprehensive media coverage has prompted a dismissive response from Westminster, with one spokesperson remarking that the government has ‘no plans to change the devolution settlement’.

Before its absorption by Scotland in 1472, Orkney had been under Norwegian rule since 875. This historical background not only resulted in the islands’ immersion in the riches of Norwegian culture and history but also established a point of origin for their national identity and allegiance to Norway. This unofficial dual identity under which the Orkneys had been peacefully existing came into a state of dispute after accusations of mismanagement and neglect were directed at Westminster and Holyrood by the islands’ inhabitants.

Whilst it is unrealistic to imagine that the Orkneys would ever join another sovereign state, this speculation represents a growing aspiration for self-governance that weakens Britain’s image on the international stage.

The main driving factor for self-governance is a lack of economic security provided by both Westminster and Holyrood. Despite being described as the ‘lifeblood’ of the islands, the fleet of ferries, which guarantees economic security by promoting labour mobility, is becoming increasingly unreliable. As such, the case for their replacement grows stronger by the day. Due to a lack of acknowledgement and focus from the Scottish government and Westminster, it seems unlikely for the Orkneys to receive the support they need anytime soon.

The issue around replacing the Orkney fleet of ferries represents a typical ‘push’ factor in cases of devolution and independence in that it highlights the need for local autonomy and self-governance in response to mismanagement by a central power. Such cases, consisting of an unequal dynamic between a central power and a small outlier community, rarely on the agenda of its own government, are easily identifiable across Europe - especially in the United Kingdom. As such, the situation in the Orkneys feels increasingly resonant with the question of Cornish devolution.

Like the Orkney Islands, Cornwall has a vast and rich history outside of the United Kingdom, with enough unique cultural motifs and customs to provide it with its own national identity to form the foundations for self-government independent of Westminster. This, albeit less tangible and more abstract, element has formed the basis for several political movements in Cornwall, including the militant ‘Cornish Liberation Army’, dedicated to achieving separation from the United Kingdom and pursuing Cornish independence driven by nostalgia for the Cornish kingdoms of the past.

These cultural and historical ties can be argued to represent a typical ‘pull’ factor in cases of devolution and independence in that the desire for autonomy arises from a profound connection to regional culture rather than from a dispute with a central power. However, similar to the situation in the Orkneys, not everyone in Cornwall feels this way about their home’s history and culture, at least not to the extent that warrants a move towards independence.

Nevertheless, Cornwall, like the Orkneys, is reliant on its tourism and fishing industries and possesses a unique set of social and economic circumstances that cannot necessarily be adequately dealt with wholly by a centralised power that is not attuned to the specific issues of the region.

Whilst both Orkney and Cornwall have MPs to represent their interests in Westminster, the red tape of parliamentary procedures, party politics, and other obstacles often prevent the issues unique to these regions from climbing up the political agenda, leaving many inhabitants of these areas feeling unrepresented by government. For example, Cornish MPs, of which in 2023 all are conservative, may not be able to raise issues of second home ownership and gentrification in Cornwall to their party because of their being at odds with conceptions of important conservative traditions such as aspiration and economic liberalism, leaving these issues to largely go unnoticed and people affected by these issues unrepresented.

It is also important to note that the impact that Brexit has had on the politics of British devolution cannot be overstated. The legacy of Brexit has been one of international decline for the UK, with its economy increasingly being outpaced by the traditionally far more average economies of its neighbours. As such, the once-great influence of the UK continues to dwindle as global corporations and foreign governments seek their fortune elsewhere.

This decline in influence and, consequently, authority has not just been felt internationally but also domestically, with the UK’s constituent parts claiming to have far less faith in the governance of Westminster than they may have had previously. In the face of Westminster’s decline, regions such as Cornwall and the Orkneys may be experiencing a newfound confidence - spurred on by an increasingly provocative Scottish independence movement - that they might just be able to do a better job than Westminster in governing themselves.

In the cases of both Orkney and Cornwall, the ‘push’ factors of perceived neglect and mismanagement, combined with the ‘pull’ factors of their rich history and culture outside of the United Kingdom, form the basis for a cleavage centred around those in favour of devolution or independence and those against. This cleavage - now emerging in places other than solely Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - is beginning to already interfere with the established geopolitical norm and may compel Westminster to address the issues faced by these equally unique regions.

However, if Westminster remains resistant, Orkney may decide that there is a better future for the Islands outside of Westminster’s influence, potentially setting a precedent for Cornwall to follow suit.


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