Scots Vote for Own Parliament

To a Canadian ear, it had an all-too-familiar ring. The issue was national unity, a debate that pitted an uneasy majority worried about the breakup of the country against a disgruntled minority with a distinct identity and an ancient yearning for a measure of political independence.

Scots Vote for Own Parliament

To a Canadian ear, it had an all-too-familiar ring. The issue was national unity, a debate that pitted an uneasy majority worried about the breakup of the country against a disgruntled minority with a distinct identity and an ancient yearning for a measure of political independence. And there was a referendum involved, complete with Yes and No sides and snappy campaign slogans. But the locale was Scotland, not Quebec, and when the results came in last week, the outcome seemed a far happier occasion than its parallel would have been for Canada. In voting overwhelmingly Yes for their own parliament, Scots ended nearly 300 years of rule by London alone, and took a major step towards becoming masters in their own house. "This is a great day for Scotland, one of the most important days in our country's long history," said Donald Dewar, the British Labour government's minister for Scotland and chief architect of the groundbreaking measure.

Two questions were on the referendum. The first asked Scots to decide whether they wanted their own parliament, a 129-seat body with wide - but not exclusive - powers to govern Scotland's 5 million people. That passed easily, with fully 74 per cent in favor. The second sought approval to grant the proposed parliament the authority to raise or lower income taxes by as much as three per cent, providing an additional $1.1 billion annually for the Scottish treasury. That was approved by a slimmer 63 per cent. The next step will be elections for the new parliament, to be held in the first half of 1999, with the institution itself in place by Jan. 1, 2000. At that time, Scots will be in a position to exercise more control over their own affairs than they have enjoyed since political union between Scotland and England in 1707. "Bringing a parliament back to Scotland after nearly 300 years will be a historic occasion," said Bill Speirs, a spokesman for Scotland Forward, one of the groups that campaigned for a Yes vote. "It's something we want the whole people of Scotland to participate in and to celebrate."

The establishment of a Scottish parliament is the fulfilment of an election promise by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who took office in May. He pledged to institute a broad devolution of powers from the central government at Westminster in London to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the three constituent parts that, with England, make up the United Kingdom. Unlike Canada, the United Kingdom has no provincial governments - no other levels of authority, in fact, lying between municipal governments and Westminster. Labour vowed to change all that and the Scottish referendum was the first step in the process. This week, voters in Wales will be asked to approve the creation of a Welsh assembly similar to the Scottish institution but less powerful, with no tax-raising authority. Northern Ireland is next on Blair's agenda, but devolution there awaits a settlement of the province's religious wars.

In promoting devolution, Blair's government hopes to nip Scottish dreams of outright independence in the bud. When he first unveiled the plan last July, Dewar described the scheme as a means of recognizing Scotland's "distinctive identity" while keeping the Scots within the United Kingdom. And the powers of the proposed Scottish parliament have been carefully proscribed to ensure that, while the members of the new institution will be able to debate independence, they will never actually be able to achieve it. Scottish legislators will govern strictly local concerns, matters such as health, education, municipal government, economic development, criminal and civil law, fisheries and forestry.

Still, there are many voices, particularly in the British Conservative party, who feel Blair's program will merely fan the flames of regional nationalism, leading to the country's eventual breakup. "It cannot lead in any other direction," declared Conservative MP Michael Ancram, the Tory party's spokesman for constitutional affairs and a leading No campaigner. The independence-minded Scottish National Party certainly hopes the Tory view is correct. The SNP believes that once Scots get used to having their own regional government, the temptation to take over their own affairs completely will be overwhelming. "We think there is every chance that the creation of a Scottish parliament will eventually lead to an independent Scotland," confided one SNP campaign worker in Edinburgh.

Whatever the future holds, there are some Scottish voices ready to express concern about the entire process, largely because of Canada's experience. "The fear many of us have in Scotland is whether we're likely to find ourselves in a position like Quebec," remarked Edinburgh's mayor, Eric Milligan, a Labour Party member. "I think there is clear evidence that Quebec has suffered because of the years of internal debate. As we move to establish a parliament and change the constitutional relationship of 300 years, we do not want to find ourselves in the same cul-de-sac as Canada." Last week, however, most Scots were simply celebrating the chance to have their own voice again.

Maclean's September 22, 1997