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Europe: Scotland, Then Wales, To Vote On Greater Autonomy

Prague, 10 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Voters in Scotland will go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether or not they want greater autonomy for themselves within the United Kingdom (UK). A week later, voters in Wales will have the same choice to make, although the degree of autonomy being offered them is less than what is being proposed to the Scots. The two countries are -- along with England and Northern Ireland -- half of the four that make up the UK.

The two referenda on what the British call the "devolution" of powers from London to Edinburgh and Cardiff were called by the UK Labor Government elected three-and-a-half months ago, a fulfillment of one of the party's major campaign promises. Traditionally, Scotland and Wales are both Labor bastions, the party having been founded in Scotland in the late 19th century. In the May election that made Tony Blair Prime Minister, Britain's Conservative Party lost all its parliamentary members from both countries, with Labor taking most of the seats.

The Scots, who number 5.2 million -- about one-tenth the population of England -- are being asked to decide on two questions: Do they want a Scottish parliament, the first since the country signed a Treaty of Union with England 290 years ago that merged its own assembly with London's? And do they want to vest that new parliament with limited taxation powers?

Most opinion polls indicate that voters will overwhelmingly answer yes to the first question. But the result on the second proposition -- which would grant the new parliament power to vary income tax by up to three percent and change local business taxes -- is likely to be far more close. Both questions must be settled by more than 50 percent of those voting tomorrow. A no vote on the second question would represent a severe setback for Blair and his party.

Scotland already enjoys a measure of autonomy, maintaining legal and educational systems separate from the rest of the UK. But if voters endorse both propositions, Scots will in effect be granted home rule not only in judicial and educational matters but also in health, transportation and cultural affairs. Similarly, they will be able to decide on local government and economic development for themselves. But power over foreign and defense affairs, border controls, broad economic and monetary policy, and social security would still rest with the UK Parliament at Westminster in London.

Tomorrow's vote is the culmination of a long campaign for Scottish home rule, supported in recent years not only by Labor but by the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrat Party and by all three of Scotland's major indigenous political parties. They all maintain that the limited home rule being offered would "modernize" and "democratize" the UK, "bringing power closer to the people."

The Conservative Party and its supporters in the UK's business community strongly oppose home rule, arguing that it would be the first step toward inevitable full independence for the country and therefore lead to the break-up of the UK. Many Conservatives, led by the party's new leader William Hague, have based their campaign on the tax issue. They argue, in Hague's phrase, that "to make Scotland the highest tax part of the United Kingdom would be a very grave mistake."

Yesterday, Baroness (Margaret) Thatcher, who was Conservative Prime Minister from 1979-90, strongly urged Scots to reject both propositions. In an article in "The Scotsman" newspaper, she wrote that what is at stake "is nothing short of the Union of the United Kingdom....Separation is the destination toward which the present devolution proposals lead." But analysts believe Lady Thatcher's last-minute intervention will probably help, not hurt, home-rule supporters. They point out that she has been highly disliked in Scotland since the 1980s, when she introduced the unpopular poll tax in the country a year before doing so in England.

Next week, the Welsh -- who number some three million -- will be offered an assembly, not a parliament, and far more limited autonomy. The assembly's job would be to exercise what is known as "secondary" legislative powers -- that is, power over the way Westminster's laws are put into practice. These powers are today held by the UK's Secretary for Welsh Affairs.

The latest poll of the Welsh, published today by the "Guardian" newspaper, indicates that they could very well reject the limited devolution being proposed. Only 37 percent of a 500-strong sample said they would support the proposition. Analysts say that's because many Welsh want far more independence -- as much as the Scots are being offered -- than London is now willing to allow them.