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Scotland: Parliament Convenes For First Time In 300 Years

  • Ben Partridge

London, 2 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Big crowds turned out in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh yesterday for the opening of the small Celtic country's first parliament in nearly 300 years.

The British government decision to grant Scotland a national assembly, and thus a measure of limited self-rule, follows Scots' complaints that rule from London is remote and unresponsive.

The new 129-seat parliament was opened by Queen Elizabeth in a colorful ceremony combining populism with tradition. She said the five million Scots are embarking on a new and historic journey and are stepping "across the threshold of a new constitutional age."

"Today is a historic day for Scotland. It's our solemn duty in this chamber, with the eyes of the country upon us, to mark the point when this new parliament assumes its full powers in the service of the Scottish people."

A promise to give Scotland its own parliament was part of the general election manifesto two years ago of Britain's ruling Labor Party. Prime Minister Tony Blair made the controversial commitment in a bid to head off rising nationalism in Scotland.

Polls showed that an increasing number of Scots favored full independence from their larger neighbor, England, prompting analysts to warn of the danger of a divorce like that effected by Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Many Scots complain of the political and cultural dominance of the 56 million English. Their resentment coincides with a new-found Scots' interest in their own distinctive culture and traditions.

The devolution of power to Edinburgh -- and the creation of an elected assembly with more limited powers in Wales -- is one of the most far-reaching constitutional changes in the history of the United Kingdom (UK) --made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scotland lost its own national parliament when it united politically with England in 1707. Like Wales, which was forcibly joined with England in the 16th century, it elects deputies to the London parliament in Westminster, which then legislates for the UK as a whole.

In effect, the move to grant limited self-rule to both Scotland and Wales marks a significant step away from the present unitary system of government towards a federal-style system. In the future, the UK will look more like Germany, Spain or Italy, all of which have devolved power from the center to the regions.

Scots voters will continue to be represented by the British Parliament, which will retain responsibility for foreign policy, defense, social security and other major policy areas. But Scots will also elect legislators to the new Edinburgh assembly which will be responsible for education, housing, health services and other domestic policies. It will have limited tax-raising powers.

Prime Minister Blair was meant to attend yesterday's festivities but instead was locked up in talks in Belfast aimed at keeping the Northern Ireland peace process alive. Blair's message to the new parliament was read by Scotland's new first minister, Donald Dewar:

"The establishment of the Scottish parliament is a great achievement for the people of Scotland. I am very proud that after so many years of campaigning, this government kept its pledge and legislated for the Scottish parliament." Supporters of the devolution of power say it will undercut the appeal of the Scottish National Party, now the second largest in Scotland, which wants full independence within the European Union. But opponents fear the Edinburgh assembly will be taken over by nationalist extremists who now will use it as a forum to ferment separatist feeling and to undermine the historic union.

Opponents also say the new assembly will create a wholly unnecessary -- and expensive -- extra layer of bureaucracy. They argue that its existence will give rise to endless squabbles with London, and difficult constitutional problems and anomalies.

One thing seems clear: The recent rediscovery of Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh regional identity may have been stimulated, to a significant extent, by the development of the EU.

The respected analyst David Brighty, a former British ambassador to Spain, says European regions have acquired an ever-greater social and political significance in recent years. He links this process to the growth of what he calls the "supra-state functions" of EU institutions in Brussels, and to the decline of the sovereignty of the Union's 15 member-states.

Brighty says that even in long-established states, like the UK, such pressures now have to be acknowledged as part of the complex array of political forces in both EU members and within the Union itself.