SCOTLAND: An Independent Nation, But Not Yet A State

John Roberts

EDINBURGH, Sep 9 1997 (IPS) - On Sep. 11, the people of Scotland will vote to decide whether they wish to create their own parliament — and whether they wish to give it the power to change basic rate of tax paid by the country’s five-and-half million people.

Thursday’s vote will yield a clear result, almost certainly in favour of a Scottish parliament.

But it is far from clear whether the new parliament will be a mechanism for keeping Britain united, or the device which leads to the end of three centuries of union between Scotland and the United Kingdom’s most populous member nation: England.

Time and again opinion polls have shown around half the Scottish people favouring home rule — or devolution as it is commonly called.

This covers the creation of a parliament capable of looking after their own affairs, whilst leaving the British parliament at Westminster to manage such fundamental issues as defence, overall economic direction, and foreign affairs.

Again, according to the polls, this leaves just over a quarter who support for total independence from England — and less than a quarter want to see the status quo sustained, in which all major matters are handled by Westminster.

This split in popular opinion has remained essentially unchanged for almost 18 years, since the narrow failure of an effort by Britain’s last Labour government to secure home rule for Scotland.

But while Donald Dewar, who as Secretary of State for Scotland is Scotland’s official voice in the cabinet, considers that this constitutes “the settled will of the Scottish people,” other politicians beg to differ.

For instance, while Dewar believes that granting a large measure of home rule is essential if the United Kingdom is to remain united, the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, makes no secret of his belief that Thursday’s vote is just anot her step along the road to total independence.

This division of opinion has given opponents of devolution one of their few glimmers of real hope.

A senior Conservative party leader in Scotland, Lord Fraser of Carmylie, commented on Monday: “Donald Dewar is an honourable politician. He believes what he says. The difficulty I have with that is that Alex Salmond, who is a wily and skinny politician, believes exactly the opposite.”

The drive for a Scottish parliament reflects both Scotland’s history and more recent politics. Scotland never voted to join England in the United Kingdom, it was a decision taken nearly 300 years ago by a parliament bribed by English gold.

Even so, it retained a sense of nationality by preserving its own educational and legal system. Even its official church is rch of Scotland is Presbyterian, notAnglican.

More recently, general elections throughout the 1980s — when Margaret Thatcher seemed to be fashioning Britain in her own peculiarly Conservative image — saw Scotland persistently bucking the trend by electing far more Labour parliamentarians than Co nservative.

Indeed, in the latest May 1997 general election, the Conservatives failed to win any of Scotland’s 71 parliamentary seats, largely because of the party’s total opposition to home rule.

A generation has grown up which feels alienated from the central government in London. Moreover, now that Britain no longer has an empire, there is no imperial drive or mission to unite the British people — so that many Scots no longer use the term Brit ish to describe themselves.

In this sense, the break-up of the United Kingdom may have already begun, for reasons that have as much to do with Britain’s imperial history as with internal forces in Scotland or traditional rivalry between the Scots and their 49 million English neighb ours.

Dewar now finds himself walking a tightrope. Much of his draft for a Scottish parliament with tax-varying powers has its origins in the work of an informal, yet important, convention that grouped the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties together with the Scottish trade unions and the Church of Scotland.

It met for several years earlier this decade to draft what was called a ‘Claim of Right’ for Scotland. One key conclusion, to which the Labour members agreed, was that sovereignty in Scotland rests with the Scottish people: a sharp contrast to traditiona l English constitutional practice in which it rests, with the authority of the monarch, in parliament.

Dewar now states “Westminster is the sovereign parliament of the Scottish people” — but this may not be the view taken by those who are elected to the impending assembly.

And the new parliament is coming. No-one in Scotland really doubts that the nation will vote to set up the new assembly.

What is not quite so sure — opinion polls are running around 50-40 in favour — is whether the voters on Thursday will cast a positive vote on a second question asking them to allow the parliament to vary the basic rate of income tax by up to three pen ce in the pound — a change of up to 13 per cent on the current basic rate of tax.

From the perspective of those who favour devolution, a key argument is that Europe seems increasingly to constitute a patchwork of regions, even though it is national leaders who tend to steal the limelight.

They look to Catalunya, the German lander and the Scandinavian nations, all of them of similar size to Scotland. Those opposed to devolution reject regional or federal solutions, pointing to a generation of political dispute in Canada over the status of Quebec.

What’s more, they add, Canada was the favoured example of home rule enthusiasts the last time Scotland got the chance to vote for devolution in 1979.

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