Orkney and Shetland as a parliamentary constituency has been in existence since 1708. Access to a vote however is still a process which may or may not deliver votes to 16 and 17 year olds if the recommendations of the Smith Commission ever survive through the Parliament and Lords of Westminster.
In 1708 votes were offered only to those of certain landed rank with working men and women attaining the vote very much later.
The affection for the Liberals in the Highlands and Islands is anecdotally linked with the delivery of land tenure and crofters’ rights by Wm. Gladstone’s Liberal Party after the findings of the Napier commission in 1884.The commission toured the Highlands and Islands taking evidence from crofters on their conditions. This arose out of vociferous protests in the Highlands and Western Isles where land tenure and the clearance of tenants were most vicious. In those areas conditions gave rise to the Crofters Party which in 1885 elected 5 of its own members to the UK parliament. Many crofters however who did testify against their landlords to the commission were forced to emigrate, like James Leonard of Digroo in Rousay.
The Liberals as we know the term formed from a colloquialism referring to the more radical arm of the Whig party.
In 1831 a mere 4,500 men, out of a population of more than 2.6 million people in Scotland, were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections.
The reform act of 1832, invoked to prevent the spread of revolution from France, gave the vote only to men in towns who occupied property with a value of more than £10 excluding 6 out of 7 adult males from the process.
In 1832 two parties contested Orkney and Shetland: Whig and Tory, with turnout out of 212, thus illustrating how few in the constituency had the vote. The tussle went between Tory and Whig till 1847 when the name Liberal appeared, albeit 2 Liberals fighting each other – turnout 392.
1885 saw a total vote increase when all male house owners could vote and Liberals begin to entrench their hold. However the Liberal choice varied between ‘Liberal’, ‘Liberal Unionist’, ‘Independent Liberal’, ‘Coalition Liberal’ and ‘National Liberal’. The upset of 1935 was Sir Basil Nevin Spence ‘Unionist’ taking 57% of 1586 votes cast. Spence for the Conservatives only lost in 1950 to Jo Grimond polling 46% to Spence’s 31%. Since then only Liberal or Lib Dems have been elected to Orkney and Shetland. This is the longest running Liberal held seat in Britain and subsequent entrenchment of the incumbent Liberal mythology in Orkney and Shetland voting. The percentage vote for Libs has rarely slipped below the 60% bracket with only Dr J. Firth Conservative running Jo Grimond to a ‘slim’ 2532 lead in 1970. Jo Grimond still held on with 47% and Cons on 31 %.
The first ever SNP candidate was Howie Firth in 1974 bringing 17% to SNP but Grimond still holding out at 58%.
Robina Goodlad, Labour, was the first woman to contest Orkney and Shetland in 1979, when without a strong local candidate, SNP dropped to 4%.
1987 saw a strong challenge to Jim Wallace from a field of vigorous local candidates including John Goodlad, John Aberdein and Richard Jenkins with the Conservatives taking 21% and appearing to take votes from the Lib Dems to reduce their share to 41%.
Labour’s best election was its first in Orkney and Shetland in 1945 when Prophet Smith took 29.8 % but still came third to the Tory win of 36%. This was Jo Grimond’s first stab at the seat which he went on to take in 1950.
2005 saw a total of 8 candidates on the ballot paper, with the first appearance of UKIP. The Greens first stood a candidate in 1987.
It appears that the Lib Dems when they lose support do so to the Tories, however when there is the opportunity to vote for something new – Labour in ‘45 or the SNP in ‘74, voters will make a switch.
A local candidate is not necessarily an election winner and personality plays heavily – if that local candidate carries the ‘right’ local endorsement they can bring over voters but if not, they too irrespective of talent will languish at the level of their party’s core support.
It would appear that from the emergence of the liberal part in the late 1800s that the old unionist and radical divide among Orkney Liberal voters still holds firm. They seem to still be voting along the lines of the Liberal Unionist party or the part of the Liberals that broke from Gladstone’s reforming Liberals over the Irish home rule question in 1886 and which would go on to become the Conservative party in 1912.
It may be true that Orkney Liberal voters need to analyse their party’s position in the UK politics of 2015, much as they did two centuries ago. Supporting a Liberal party that is prepared to vote with the old Unionist Conservatives and prop up their anti- Highlands and Islands farming interests as midwives to a vote on leaving Europe is no longer in their best interests.
It’s no time for historical affections.