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Europe: Scotland Demands Independence

Prague, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Since Wales was united with England in 1536 and Scotland followed in 1707, the two nations have clamored for greater autonomy from London. Historical, cultural, legal and linguistic differences are cited as the main reasons. Apart from occasional and failed uprisings, moves for independence and more self-rule have simmered beneath the surface, and been defeated when tested at the polls. But after last September's endorsement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government of devolution of power from London, or the expansion of self-government in Scotland and Wales, things could change. This is perhaps more noticeable in Scotland than in Wales.

Under the Devolution Bill the Scottish Legislative Assembly, consisting of 150 members to be elected every four years in general elections, will have competence over education, health, housing, road-building and local government. London will maintain complete control of foreign policy, defense, the police and finance -- including the income from North Sea oil.

The reaction in Scotland was immediate, leading to the strengthening of the nationalist trends. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has become a political force to be reckon with. Critics of devolution argue that it is the "first step on a long slippery slope to independence for Scotland and the ultimate break-up of the United Kingdom."

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a fight against a rising tide of nationalism in Scotland. Blair had apparently hoped that the passing of the Devolution Bill, which envisages the setting up of assemblies in Scotland and Wales, would satisfy the greater part of the population and help to stem the wave of nationalism. As he put it at the time of the referendum, devolution means "a new Scotland in a new Britain." On a whistle-stop, one-day tour of the country, Blair said Scotland had a choice of two futures -- "a devolved parliament which would enhance democracy and the lives of Scots, or separatism which would tear the country apart."

However, in Scotland, the policy appears to be far from dampening demands for independence. Instead, it seems to have legitimized these demands.

In addition. Blair's current move has been also prompted by immediate political considerations. His Labour party has suffered an embarrassing slump in support in Scotland. Labour government ministers are dismayed that, despite fulfilling an election pledge to create a Scottish Parliament -- slated to assemble some time in 1999 -- traditionally strong support for their party has fallen away since the election last May, in stark contrast to huge popularity elsewhere in Britain. A recent poll put the Scottish Nationalists 14 percentage points ahead of Labour in voting intentions for the new Edinburgh parliament.

The SNP says that if it emerges as the largest party in the new 129-seat Edinburgh parliament, it will insist on a referendum on independence within the first four-year term. According to the polls, a plebiscite could result in a majority in favor of breaking the nearly 300-year old link with England.

But Scotland itself has now to contend with a dissatisfied minority inside its own jurisdiction, a kind of mini-nationalism within a broad nationalism.

Situated 105 miles north of the coast of Scotland are the more than 100 Shetland Islands, which have been part of Scotland for 500 years. The attachment has been loose and fragile, with the Shetlanders showing a decided preference for the English. Shetlanders oppose the very principle of devolution because they fear that once home rule is established in Edinburgh, the Scots will go on to demand outright independence. In that case, the Shetlanders would prefer attachment to England.

(This is the first story in a five-part series on autonomy conflicts.)