Winner in 2016: Tavish Scott (Liberal Democrats)

Winner of 2019 by-election: Beatrice Wishart (Liberal Democrats)

WHEN the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999, the constituency boundaries were identical to the 72 Scottish seats at Westminster – with just one exception. Orkney & Shetland, already far smaller in population terms than a typical constituency, was divided into two even smaller seats. This was done on the very good rationale that the two island groups are geographically far apart and culturally distinct from each other, meaning it’s hard for a single person to represent both.

However, it’s likely that raw partisan advantage also played a part. Orkney and Shetland had been a solidly Liberal and Liberal Democrat seat since Jo Grimond grabbed it from the Tories in 1950. With the LibDems also holding a number of other constituencies in the Highlands and Islands electoral region, they may have scented an opportunity to add one more to their tally, thus guaranteeing they would be handsomely over-represented in the region even after the list seats were distributed. That would also have held considerable appeal for the Labour government that made the final decision, because the LibDems were seen as Labour’s natural coalition partners.

The tide has gone out for the LibDems in the rest of the Highlands and Islands since then, but the existence of the Shetland seat still affords them an opportunity – that most other parties don’t have – to bank some representation at Holyrood with a very modest number of votes. The Shetland and Orkney MSPs between them account for 40% of the entire LibDem parliamentary party. However, what happens if islanders start to go cold on their traditional party of choice?

It would be an exaggeration to say the LibDems look under serious threat in the Northern Isles, but the days of total dominance may be over. In proportional representation contests where people are voting for a party rather than a candidate, it’s become commonplace for the SNP to run the LibDems close. The gap has generally remained far bigger in first-past-the-post elections, but Danus Skene famously had a near miss for the SNP in the Westminster seat at the 2015 landslide election.

Perhaps encouraged by that example, the SNP felt it was worth their while to throw the kitchen sink at the Shetland by-election in the summer of 2019, caused by the resignation of Holyrood MSP (and former LibDem leader) Tavish Scott. They did make significant inroads, slashing the LibDem advantage from a mammoth 44 percentage points to just 16. However, the possibility of an outright SNP victory had been unrealistically talked up before polling day, and the LibDems made the point that if a 16-point defeat was the best the SNP could manage in the context of a by-election when abnormally vast resources and manpower could be chucked in, it was highly unlikely the seat would change hands in a more routine election.

And that logic would normally hold true – a big swing to a challenger party in a by-election will often be partly or wholly reversed in the subsequent general election. But, fascinatingly, the SNP actually got closer in the Orkney & Shetland seat in the December 2019 Westminster general election than they had done in the by-election a few months earlier. That suggests the patient spadework may be paying off, and that voting for SNP candidates has gradually become normalised. Eventually that process may reach the point where Shetland electoral battles are genuinely competitive between the LibDems and SNP.

That day has perhaps not dawned just yet, however.

An SNP gain in the coming election still looks a long-shot – although if it does happen, the symbolic value would be tremendous. Unionist commentators, especially in London, love to raise the prospect of Shetland choosing to remain part of the UK if Scotland becomes independent. Nothing would knock that idea so firmly on the head as Shetland electing its own pro-independence MSP.