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Great Britain: New Parliamentary Assemblies A Step Towards Decentralized Government

  • Ben Partridge

Edinburgh, 10 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Political commentators say the elections to new parliamentary assemblies in Scotland and Wales last week have changed the face of British politics, opening the way to a new era of decentralized government.

Voters in Scotland elected a new parliament in their capital, Edinburgh, the first to sit for almost 300 years. The people of Wales elected a new assembly in their capital, Cardiff, giving them a more direct say in their own affairs.

Scotland, with five million people, and Wales, with three million, have long been united in a political union with their larger neighbor, England, which, with its 46 million population, is often seen by Scots and Welsh as unsympathetic to their aspirations.

Thursday's votes keep the union intact, but they have devolved a significant amount of political power from the London parliament to the two small Celtic countries on the periphery of Britain which have seen rising demands for more autonomy.

For many Britons, the elections were overshadowed by the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, the explosion of nail bombs aimed at ethnic and other minorities in London, and the inexplicable killing by a gunman on a London street of a woman TV presenter.

But, in the long-term, the creation of the two new assemblies will be seen as historic because it propels British politics into a new and unfamiliar decentralized political system, creating new regional power centers to contend with the Westminster parliament.

The Labour government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to create Scottish and Welsh assemblies as part of its manifesto pledge in the 1997 general elections. This was in response to claims from the Scots and Welsh that the British system of government - one of the most centralized in Europe - was insufficiently responsive and too remote.

The election count on Friday showed that the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties won the largest number of seats in the two new assemblies, albeit not with absolute majorities.

Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales took second place in both elections in a humiliation for the Conservative Party, which for almost two decades under Margaret Thatcher and John Major dominated British political life, but is now in disarray.

Donald Dewar, a veteran Labour politician who is the future first minister of Scotland, said the devolution legislation introduced by his party marks a new era of politics.

"The first six words of the Scotland Act read simply: There shall be a Scottish parliament. With those six simple words, Scottish politics are forever changed."

The Scottish National Party, which campaigned for full independence for Scotland, recorded its best showing ever in a British election. But the strong support for Labour, and the low voter turnout of less than 60 percent, suggests that a majority of Scots are content with a limited devolution of power, and are opposed to a break-up of the union.

The Welsh Nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, which campaigned for what it called a "self-governing nation" within the EU, also recorded its strongest ever showing. But only 46 percent of the electorate bothered to vote, showing that most Welsh have no desire for independence, and damaging the credibility of the new assembly.

The Labor decision to devolve significant powers from the center is one of the biggest constitutional changes to occur in Britain in many years.

The Scots, Welsh and English will continue to elect legislators to the London parliament, which will retain responsibility for foreign affairs, defense, overall economic policy, and taxation. The Scottish parliament will able to make laws over health services, education, housing and justice, and it will have limited tax-raising powers. The powers of the new assembly in Wales will be more modest.

The British have taken a giant step away from a unitary system of government towards the kind of federalism practised in Germany, where the Bavarian and other laender, or regions, have considerable autonomy, or Spain, where the Catalan, Basque and other provinces run their own regional governments with little interference from Madrid.

Supporters of devolution say it is good for democracy if decisions are taken closest to the people who are most affected. Intellectuals like Leopold Kohr and Fritz Schumacher first put forward the idea that "small is beautiful" - the smaller the unit of government, the more the citizen can be heard. But opponents of devolution say centralization makes it easier to enforce uniform national standards in education, health care and social welfare.

Some political analysts fear that the creation of a Scottish parliament will give the nationalists a stronger platform to argue their case for outright independence.

Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, said on Friday that his party will continue to press for an independent Scotland within the European Union.

"Each and every one of us who has the privilege to be elected to it has a heavy burden of responsibility to make sure the parliament works well for Scotland, builds the confidence of the Scottish people, and takes this nation on to national freedom and independence."

However, others say that the creation of a national assembly for Scotland, far from being the catalyst for the eventual break-up of the United Kingdom, will bring a new confidence to national life outside London. They say the Scots will no longer be tempted to blame all their ills on the center - London - but on politicians nearer to home.

Moreover, they say the creation of national assemblies will bring a new vigor and confidence to Scottish and Welsh intellectual and cultural life.

But many problems lie ahead. One danger is that the Scottish parliament will spend much of its energies arguing for yet more power - and money - to be passed from the London parliament. This may cause an English backlash, particularly as the richer English taxpayer subsidizes the poorer Scots and Welsh. Another problem is that Scottish and Welsh legislators in the Westminster parliament will continue to vote on English domestic affairs, while English legislators will have no comparable say in their affairs.

Unlike Balkan, Caucasus or East European nationalism, the long-running debate among the independent-minded Welsh and Scots has little to do with ethnicity. Their politicians stress the need to respect the rights of all racial and religious minorities. When the new deputies to the Scottish parliament are sworn in next Wednesday, the 129 legislators can choose to swear the oath to Queen Elizabeth, the British head of state, in any language they choose, in Gaelic, Cantonese, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujurati, or Hindi, or any of the tongues of an increasingly multi-racial Britain. Most, if not all, will opt for English - but the fact they have a choice reflects the tolerance which, despite the recent London nail bombs aimed at ethnic groups, is encouraged by civic leaders.