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Great Britain: Analysis From Washington--Devolution And Democracy

Washington, 22 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The British government's decision to shift power from London to new regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales is part of a world-wide trend to make central states more responsive to local interests.

But this British action underscores both the political calculations all central governments make when they take such steps and also the very real difficulties they are likely to face when they decide to do so.

Last Thursday, voters in Wales narrowly approved a referendum creating a regional legislative assembly that will eventually have the power to allocate funds sent to the area by London.

Only a week earlier, voters in Scotland approved a referendum establishing a local legislature with the power to raise taxes and set budgetary priorities.

The British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed these measures both to improve governmental efficiency and to respond to growing regional and ethnic assertiveness in the United Kingdom.

But together and separately, the votes in Scotland and Wales are likely to have consequences far beyond those anticipated by the British government.

London obviously tailored the two referendum measures to deal with the very different level of ethnic and regional activism in Scotland and Wales. And the central government clearly felt that its concessions would end nationalist challenges in both regions.

But as other governments caught in this situation have discovered, the reverse is likely to be true. Indeed, the British government may soon find that some Welsh leaders will demand a legislature with at least as many rights as the Scottish one has.

And Scottish national leaders in turn are likely to see London's latest concession to them as an indication that central government will make even more concessions to them in the future if they continue to press their case.

Such calculations on the part of the Welsh and the Scottish peoples seem certain to exacerbate tensions not only within each territory but also between the two of them and the rest of the United Kingdom

In both cases, regional leaders are likely to play up ethnic divisions to advance their cause. Indeed, the vote in Wales suggests just how that may happen. There, Welsh-speaking regions voted for the referendum, while English-speaking regions voted against.

But there is an even greater likelihood that the Scottish and Welsh actions, however reasonable the leaders of each group may be now and in the future, will generate a backlash inside the rest of the United Kingdom.

On the one hand, many English will see this devolution of power to Scotland and Wales as a threat to their long-standing dominance in the United Kingdom.

And on the other, other groups inside the United Kingdom -- both those such as Northern Ireland with an active ethnic movement and those such as Cornwall with long dormant regional identities -- may seek to follow the Scottish and Welsh examples.

Other central governments across the European continent -- such as Germany, Spain, Italy, and Russia -- have already discovered the dilemmas of dealing with regional and ethnic challenges.

If the authorities resist ethnic and regional challenges, they open themselves to charges that they are behaving in a non-democratic way and may thus generate support for nationalist causes and even for the terrorist tactics some movements have used.

But if they make concessions to such ethnic and regional groups, they create a bidding war, one in which these groups are likely to seek ever greater power at the expense of the central state and in which new groups will enter the fray.

What has happened in the United Kingdom in the last two weeks is a reminder that democracy by itself will not "solve" regional and ethnic challenges.

Even more, the Scottish and Welsh votes serve notice that democracy itself may actually promote devolution and other attacks on the central state.

But at the same time, the voting in Scotland and Wales also demonstrates that democracy despite the dilemmas it poses for central governments provides a far better way for dealing with these challenges than any of the alternatives.