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Great Britain: Devolution Debate Teaches Lesson In Democratic Politics

  • Ben Partridge



Edinburgh, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- There is a mood of quiet exhilaration in Scotland today, one day after elections for the first Scottish parliament for almost 300 years in a ballot that will fundamentally change the nature of British politics.

Many Scots are elated because the vote will give them control over many areas of their national life and remove many powers from the Westminster parliament in London which for three centuries has legislated for all of Britain -- Scotland, England and Wales.

The people of Wales also voted for candidates to a new national assembly in the capital, Cardiff, which will have a considerable say in their own affairs.

Many of the five million Scots and three million Welsh have long complained that they are forced to play second fiddle to the 46 million English.

The results today from the Scottish vote were an anticlimax because the turnout was disappointingly low -- at less than 60 percent. Commentators blamed rain and cold weather. As expected the Scottish Labour Party emerged as the largest party in the new 129-seat parliament with the Scottish National Party (SNP) coming second.

The results mean that Labour will dominate the new parliament, although it is just shy of an absolute majority and will need to rule in coalition with the small Scottish Liberal Democratic Party.

Labour campaigned for a devolution of political power from the center, but also for the maintenance of the historic union between England, Scotland and Wales. The SNP stood for full independence for Scotland.

A visitor to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, is struck by the civilized and restrained tone of the debate over the devolution of political power that, in the view of some analysts, could eventually lead to full independence for Scotland.

Analysts say the democratic way in which the Scots have pressed for more say in their own affairs, and the responsive way in which the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has answered their aspirations, is an object lesson in democratic politics.

Alastair McKay, in the Scotsman newspaper, says the devolution of power is a change made with the consent of political and civic leaders in both London and Edinburgh. He says: "Devolution is a renegotiation of a constitutional arrangement that has lasted 300 years." The Scots nationalists contribute to the civilized tone by pursuing their separatist ambitions with moderation. The SNP is often accused of fermenting anti-English hatred, but its leadership frowns on such behavior, and expels any member who engages in it.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, says that his party's nationalism is not based on ethnicity, or anti-English sentiment, but is entirely civic in nature. And SNP spokesman Angus Robertson argues for an independent Scotland based on mutual respect and tolerance.

"Scotland is a country with many different peoples from many different backgrounds. We are described by one of our most famous writers as a 'mongrel' nation. We are a mixed country, people from all kinds of backgrounds. That's the kind of Scotland that we are hoping will flourish. We believe it will only flourish with independence. One of the sources of great pride for the SNP is the fantastic support we receive from the Scots Asian community, people who have moved here from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh."

England, Scotland and Wales see themselves as separate nations with their own flags, football teams, newspapers and electronic media, and their own distinct cultures.

All three, of course, are united by a common language although there is a sizeable 500,000 Welsh minority who speak both English and Welsh, a Celtic language which is one of the oldest in Europe, and a tiny Scottish minority of 80,000 who speak Gaelic.

Anyone who crosses the England-Scotland border can be in no doubt they are in a separate country. The Scots have a distinct accent while the hauntingly beautiful landscape and granite architecture are quite distinct from England. The Scots have their own educational and legal system and the Church of Scotland, with its roots in Calvinism, relies on a different tradition from the Anglican church.

The contrasts between England and Wales are less clear, although a visitor is struck by the fact that the steep-sided Welsh valleys are much poorer than most of England.

Historically, the three countries have elected legislators to the Westminster parliament in London which has legislated for the United Kingdom, including northern Ireland, as a whole, as well as for the constituent nations in the union.

But the votes for a Scottish parliament and a national assembly in Wales will create something closer to a federal, rather than the present unitary, system of government. It will be more like the German system of regional laender.

The Scotsman newspaper says: "The Mother of Parliaments will never be the same." It says the ancient Palace of Westminster, home to a parliamentary tradition that stretches back to the medieval bill of rights, Magna Charta, faces a fundamental revolution.

The English, Scots and Welsh will continue to elect legislators to the London parliament which retains control over defense, foreign affairs, economy and taxation. But the new assemblies will have jurisdiction over many domestic matters. The new Scottish parliament will make laws over justice, health, education, and local government. It will also have some tax raising powers. The Welsh Assembly will have lesser powers.

The resurgence of Scottish nationalism over the past two decades was triggered by a number of factors: dislike of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's brand of conservatism, an unpopular local tax levied by Westminster, and a feeling that the London parliament was unresponsive to and remote from Scottish aspirations.

But SNP spokesman Robertson, while stating the case for full independence, disputes the notion Scotland and England are headed for a highly acrimonious divorce.

"Rather than taking the analogy of a marriage or a bad marriage, and should we divorce or not, I use another one which is that Scotland at the moment is the surly lodger in the British state. We would rather not be a surly lodger, we'd rather be a good neighbor and a good friend with the peoples of this island, and indeed of Europe."

The Scots, newly confident from the wealth of the North Sea offshore oilfields, have also been inspired by the success of independent Ireland, historically once also part of the UK, a "Celtic Tiger" whose economy has been growing faster than any other in the EU.

The end of the Cold War, a relaxation of the security climate across Europe, and the growing role and influence of the European Union, has also been a factor in many Scots' new determination to seek more independence as a full EU member.

This determination also has an ideological underpinning -- the idea of a new "Europe of the Regions", or the notion that Western Europe's regions, particularly those on the periphery, are set to gain in power and influence at the expense of central governments.

Many Britons -- English, Scots and Welsh -- worry that the Scottish nationalists will use the Edinburgh parliament as a stepping-stone to full independence. That could happen if the inevitable arguments between the Edinburgh and Westminster legislatures, particularly over the allocation of resources, strengthen the nationalists' support. But election results from yesterday's vote support -- at least for now -- the view of the ruling British Labour Party of Tony Blair that the Scots will be satisfied with a limited devolution of power.

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