Profile speaks to the Deputy Leader of Orkney Council about their internationally reported effort to secede from the UK – or perhaps merely to get a fairer deal for the Orcadians it represents.
When Heather Woodbridge appears on my Zoom screen, I see a young, enthusiastic and erudite lady. More importantly, she is immensely passionate about her archipelago just north of Scotland, the Council of which she is Deputy Leader. I had little idea what to expect of her. After all, she was the seconder of a Council motion reported across Britain’s most reputable newspapers and several abroad, one that readers of the news in July would have struggled to avoid reports of: the apparent endeavour by the Orkneys’ leadership, expressed through a council motion, to secede from the UK and rejoin Norway after over 500 years attached to Scotland.
It is important to note that this is (mostly) a poor reflection of the Orkney leadership’s real proposal, as Woodbridge stresses from the very beginning of our conversation. Their efforts are the result of years of “unfairness which we’re struggling with in Orkney.” She emphasises that in her interactions with the Scottish government and British government (she seems to have equal frustration with both) she is “optimistic and willing to work with them;…whoever ended up winning the election, you try to work constructively.” Yet, the Orcadian people “are completely disillusioned with government,…feeling like they’ve been left behind, and people are [therefore] broadly in support with the motion.”
She characterises this motion as fundamentally aspirational. Its essence, she argues, is daring to “dream” about whether there is “another way we could do things” – all of the “what if” questions. These dreams seem perhaps mundane to those sitting in Durham but to those on Orkney, they gain rather more importance. As someone fortunate enough to have visited the Orkneys, albeit briefly, they are not remote in the sense of cultural and physical isolation – there are frequent ferry services and flights to the Orkneys and between the islands – but their separation from Edinburgh is obvious. (It is also, as Woodbridge notes to my amusement, roughly the same distance as to Norway.)
The short-term aspirations include control over local fishing waters; permission to replace the ageing ferry fleet with hydrogen-powered equivalents; and the ability to better respond to deprivation (particularly child poverty and fuel poverty) which is missed by funding formulas targeted at inner-city poverty, not its rural and remote island equivalent. Woodbridge argues that they are even “penalised” for “bucking the trend of the rest of…rural Scotland, as we are increasing in population”, with few officials recognising that “the more people, the more pressure on the services for us, so we need more money to deal with that.” Greater economic independence, the motion’s proponents believe, will benefit the community.
The motion itself is deliberately unspecific. The “Nordic connections” which have received so much popular press are only one possibility within the effort to rectify the currently unsustainable situation. Woodbridge notes: “I’m a scientist by training: I am interested in looking at all of our options.” These include crown dependency status, much like Jersey or the Isle of Man, which Rishi Sunak has already ruled out (though Woodbridge is undeterred by this: “you can just do an act of Parliament – there are ways of doing something new”). “Something new” is seemingly Woodbridge’s ideal scenario: she is eager to “cherry-pick the best bits [from all the options] and find a unique situation for Orkney which we then push for.” She wants a consultative referendum, with exploratory questions rather than a binary choice.
Yet, the idea of Orkney rejoining Norway, or at least establishing closer ties with its North Atlantic neighbours, is neither a media invention nor (as Woodbridge stresses) “sensationalism”: it remains a genuine option. “We’re deadly serious.” The Orkneys were annexed by the Scottish from Norway in 1472 but retain Norwegian influences, their near-identical flags an obvious example. Woodbridge believes that the vast majority of Orcadians are supportive of the motion, but are split on whether they wish to be British or Norwegian. Her personal affinity towards Norwegian culture is evident, though she does not clarify on which side she falls: yet, she studied in Norway and is fluent in Norwegian.
She is also complimentary of Scandinavian political culture when compared to Scottish politics, noting the Orkneys Council’s similarity to Norwegian politics in its emphasis on “consensus.” As the Council is primarily made up of independents, she believes each is a “true community representative”. The consequence, Woodbridge argues, is that though “you’ve got completely different political positions…you all work together to solve the local issues, and what you end up having is really rich debate [and] really rich and well thought-through policy.”
Woodbridge grew up on Orkney and is a true Orcadian. She sees plenty of future for her islands, which she considers a viable prospect for both retirees and young professionals alike. Emigration – more specifically the ‘brain drain’ – is less pronounced on Orkney, as those young professionals who move away for university tend to return when they start a family in their 30s. She wants to promote this further: “we want to make…[the Orkneys] an attractive place to move and to keep young people, and not only to keep them but to give them opportunities and exciting career paths.” She sees a distinct Orcadian culture, noting that travelling to Scotland is considered going “somewhere separate”. Nonetheless, she clarifies that most Orcadians secondarily feel Scottish and/or British, noting that she support Scotland in the rugby (as a proud Englishman, I offer my condolences).
Woodbridge herself is surprising as a politician: she is candid on those matters where most politicians might be opaque and surprisingly private on other issues. I emerged from the interview with no idea whatsoever where she stands on Scottish independence, or even which party’s MP or MSP she would vote for, not that either were the focus of the interview. For a local councillor, she was exceptionally careful with her phraseology on multiple occasions, noting that she needed to be “very careful about what I say going forward” regarding the motion and even apologising for “a political answer.” This is presumably a consequence of the stakes involved in the motion and the publicity resulting.
Yet, Woodbridge was far more open to talking about her personal political background than most politicians and her integrity made her justifiably convincing. She explained the issues surrounding the motion with great eloquence and when I turned to her future political ambitions – a topic she was surprised I mentioned – she remained open to potential future ambition whilst stressing adamantly that “local government right now is one of the most exciting places to be. You have a tremendous amount of agency to affect your local community. …I am really excited about local government, very passionate about that, and the more I learn, the more interesting it becomes.”
The most touching moment of the interview came when we discussed how she got into politics. Woodbridge holds her late father’s seat, which she took on in a by-election upon his suggestion shortly before his passing. “I was very close with my father”, she notes, “and we spoke a lot about politics; we spoke a lot about what is going on [and] I’ve always been involved in community matters.” After he suggested that running for the council “might be something…you might really enjoy and be interested in”, she “decided to stand”. She believes it to be “the best thing I ever did.”
I approached the Orkney Council because I was amused by the story of a small archipelago trying to secede from the UK. Many people have considered it farcical; a rather trite but alliterative comparison between William Wallace, George Washington and Woodbridge had suggested itself to me and the crusade to break off the yoke of British imperialism had seemed pertinent. Yet, whilst the secession element still has an element of absurdity and naivety to it, the overall motion produced by the Orcadian leadership and those behind it certainly does not. She finished the interview saying “I live in hope – but I’m realistic!” This sense of grounded aspiration was evident throughout the interview with a woman who best summarised her work through a few questions: “What does the community want, what is the kind of Orkney the community wants to see? And what are the opportunities the community wants to seize?”
Photo: The view from Burwick, in the south of the Orkneys; Photo Credits: William Rome