The tiny wind-swept Shetland Islands, northwest of the Scottish coast and halfway to Iceland, pose a new home-rule dilemma for the government in London. Spurred on by burgeoning revenues derived from North Sea oil, the 20,000 Shetlanders, descendants of ninth-century Norsemen, are raising the cry of devolution -- and are organizing politically to obtain it.
A new political party, the Shetland Movement, has already attracted more than 500 members and is about to urge the British government to give the northern islands a special status within the United Kingdom.
Two things are fueling the devolution campaign:
A giant oil terminal at Sullom Voe, used to duct the North Sea's black gold to the U.K. mainland, is providing the Shetlands' local council with huge revenues. Leaders of the council maintain that the hundreds of millions that will be coming their way in the next few years should be spent on projects that they, not whitehall, have decided.
The second is a persuasive precedent across the waters. The Shetlands' neighbor, the Faroes Islands, gained home rule from Denmark 32 years ago. Shetland Islanders cannot see why they should be denied a similar status.
The Shetland Movement was formed in 1979 to mobilize local sentiment in the direction of home rule. The party plans to publish its own version of a home-rule constitution in the next few weeks.
The draft document will propose establishment of a Parliament, Cabinet, and financial authority. Foreign affairs and defense would remain under London's control.
The Shetland Movement represents a broad spectrum of political beliefs. What unites its members is a conviction that there is an unquestionable case for London's giving the islanders greater control over their own affairs. After the Scottish devolution referendum of last March, the British government thought home rule for the Scots was a dead issue. But the Shetlands, though a small territory, are a coherent community.
The Shetlands' new role as a conduit for oil into the UK gives the local council enhanced authority in London. Shetland politicians two years ago organized their own postal referendum, asking fellow islanders whether they were happy with the Shetlands' present status with Britain. Some 90 percent said the situation should be looked at anew.
The Shetland Islands Council wants Margaret Thatcher's government to set up a special inquiry to examine the constitutional position.
The islanders themselves are not wildly militant in their attitudes. They do not claim a separate national identity from other Britons, but they do point out that their Norwegian heritage has been a powerful influence on the local culture.
They feel they have a separate culture, which should be respected, and they believe firmly that their newfound wealth should be spent in ways they determine.
The voice of the Shetlands, though small, is not weak, and it seems likely to grow more insistent in the future.