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Great Britain: Scots And Welsh Vote In Historic Election

Edinburgh, 6 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Scottish voters went to the polls today to elect their first parliament in almost 300 years in a historic vote aimed at devolving many political powers from the British capital, London, to the regional capital, Edinburgh.

In another "first," the people of Wales are also going to the ballots to elect a national assembly which will have less sweeping, although still significant, authority.

The move to devolve power to Scotland and Wales from London is a gamble by British Prime Minister Tony Blair who hopes that giving the Scots and Welsh more say in their own affairs will halt growing nationalism in the two small Celtic nations.

The controversial decision to grant Scotland its own parliament, represents one of the most fundamental shifts in relations between Scotland and its larger neighbor to the south, England, since they joined in union in 1707.

Critics say the new 129-seat Scottish parliament could be a step towards outright independence from England, leading eventually to a painful Czechoslovak-style divorce.

But supporters say the move to give the Scots and Welsh more say in their own affairs will strengthen local democracy, and ultimately reinforce the cohesion of Britain.

The vote will be watched closely in other countries which face separatist pressures or political demands for a redefinition of relations between the center and the regions.

Polls suggest that Blair's ruling Labour Party, which favors continued political union, will win the most seats in the new Edinburgh parliament, but will fall just short of an overall majority. The second place is expected to be taken by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants to break up Britain and see a fully independent Scotland within the EU.

Angus Robertson, the international press spokesman for the SNP, predicts that his party will record its highest ever vote in a British election.

"These elections to Scotland's parliament are historic and are a new chapter in Scotland's history because this is our first parliament in 300 years. In fact, it is our first democratic parliament ever."

The SNP's separatist campaign has been endorsed by one of Scotland's most famous sons, actor Sean Connery. Labour counters by saying Connery is an absentee Bahama-based millionaire who has not lived in Scotland for years.

The United Kingdom historically has a unitary, as distinct from a federal, system of government. Voters in the four component parts of the union -- England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland -- elect some 650 legislators to the London parliament, which then legislates for the UK as a whole as well as for its constituent nations. There are 46 million people in England, about five million in Scotland, and almost three million in Wales.

In staging today's votes, the UK is following Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, all of which have devolved powers to regional authorities.

Three out of four Scots voted in favor of setting up their own parliament in a referendum staged by the Blair government two years ago. But a bare majority of the Welsh voters, just over 50 percent, endorsed the idea of their own legislative assembly.

The Scots have always been less integrated than the Welsh.

Although Scots and English united their political systems under the 1707 Act of Union, Scotland retained its own educational and legal system and its Calvinist church differs from the Anglican church.

Scotland has produced several British prime ministers and its contribution to the British Empire, culture, philosophy and sciences has been disproportionate. Author Tom Steel says the Scots, who before union fought many battles, have long been made to feel the underdog by the more numerous English, particularly as Scotland is poorer.

The discovery of oil off the coast of Scotland in 1970 gave an impetus to Scotland's economic life and self-confidence. Oil was the chief reason for the emergence of the Scottish National Party, which by the 1970s was winning 30 percent of the national vote. A move to devolve power to Scotland (and Wales) came to nothing in the late 1970s.

Today, Scots feel rule from an over-centralized London is remote and unresponsive. This mood came to a head in the years when the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics. "Thatcherism" was unpopular in Scotland which, being more working class than England, rejected her brand of freewheeling capitalism.

The Conservatives have now lost all their legislators in Scotland. And yet the Conservatives ran Scotland for more than a decade because of their national majority in the rest of the UK. At the time, Glasgow novelist William McIlvanney said: "What depresses me is that in Scotland we keep voting Labor and getting a Conservative government."

Angus Robertson argues that Scots should now have the right to make their own priorities in their own country. He said that people around the world recognize that democracy should be the basis of government.

"Democracy demands that one has a parliament that decides democratically on the future of the country. We don't believe that Scotland's democracy should be limited, and it is limited because control will remain in Westminster, in London, with the British state on key and vital issues. We are absolutely opposed to the limitation of people's perspectives, of people's ambitions to be successful."

The feeling that their aspirations were not adequately articulated in the Westminster parliament caused Scotland's political and civic leaders to press again for an Edinburgh parliament. Blair, whose Labour party defeated the Conservatives two years ago, proved sympathetic to these aspirations, and hence the decision to stage today's votes.

The Scots will continue to elect legislators to the British national parliament in London, which will control foreign policy and defense, overall economic policy, taxation and social security. But the Scottish parliament will make laws over health services, education, local government, housing and economic development. It will also have limited tax-raising powers.

While the polls suggest a victory for Labour and the continued union, Scottish Labour leader Donald Dewar may have to govern in coalition with the third-ranking Scottish Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives are expected to trail in fourth.

Labour's cause is helped by the fact that there are many Scots -- including Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Chancellor (finance minister) Gordon Brown -- in the national government. Moreover, the Scots nationalists' leader, Alex Salmond, saw a 25 percent drop in his personal rating, after denouncing the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

Support for a devolution of power to Wales, which was forcibly incorporated into England in medieval times and has a less distinctive sense of national identity, is much less strong than in Scotland. The most fervent backing comes from the small 500,000 strong minority who speak the ancient Welsh language.

As the Welsh voted by only the narrowest of margins for their own assembly, the new Cardiff body will not have the legislative or tax-raising powers of the Scottish parliament. Analysts say today's vote in Wales may be marked by apathy with a low turnout.

The rise of Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh nationalism, could have an unintended effect: English nationalism. Many English, whose taxes have for years subsidized the poorer Scots and Welsh, say they too should have their own national assembly. The emblem of St George, England's patron saint, is showing up more on flags and badges.

Blair and his colleagues are stoutly defending the notion of Britain and Britishness. In a recent speech, the Scots finance minister, Gordon Brown, used the word Britain or British 22 times in the first eight sentences. His Labour party is also at pains to remind voters that the Scottish nationalists want to raise taxes. A Labour party banner fluttering over the capital Edinburgh today says, "Divorce can be an expensive business."