Election '97: Around the regions: Personality key to Isles' clash

While election battles over sleaze and policy changes rage in the rest of Britain, or at least that part of it represented in the national media, Shetland has been mercifully free of indignant Tory wives and headless chickens. In this, as in so many other things, it is not like the rest of the country.

A majority of just over 5,000 would not usually be considered a safe one. But in Britain's most northerly constituency, Orkney and Shetland, it is different.

In 1992, with an electorate of just under 32,000, such a majority meant Liberal Democrat MP Jim Wallace romped home with a robust 24 per cent lead.

The Conservatives and Labour came in second and third with 22 and 20 per cent of the vote. The SNP mustered just 11 per cent. It was no surprise. The islands have been a Liberal Democrat stronghold since 1950.

Despite their geographical proximity, Orkney and Shetland are quite different. Orkney is green, flat and agricultural. Shetland, although made rich by the oil boom, is built on fishing, and the Shetland Times' letters pages have seen furious exchanges on the question of withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy over the past months.

Stealing the political headlines so far has been the Rock the Vote campaign, quick off the mark in trying to get young people to use their influence.

Other issues which matter to Shetlanders range from health and education to transport, which has burgeoned in importance over the past year.

Many islanders have been alarmed by what they see as a steady erosion of air transport to and from the isles. Twelve months ago, three companies ran services to the islands. Now there is just one, which is the subject of complaints about delays and high prices.

Indeed, Conservative candidate Hope Anderson found he could only get a round trip from Orkney to Shetland at the time he wanted by going via Aberdeen and paying a hefty pounds 305 for the privilege.

Other candidates are James Paton for Labour, Willie Ross for the SNP and Christian Wharton for the Natural Law Party. And last week Francis Adamson unexpectedly confirmed he would stand for the Referendum Party.

Many Shetlanders vote on personality rather than policies, and seem to feel that Mr Wallace has earned his spurs as a hardworking constituency MP through the oil boom years, the Orkney child abuse case and the Braer oil spill.

Believing Shetland is special, they want an MP who can represent the islands effectively. "Better the devil you know" seems to be the feeling.

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