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18 September 1997 Edition

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A Nation Once Again?

Does the Scottish referendum result herald independence? David Hewitt writes.

Amid a subdued atmosphere, the Scottish people voted on 11 September, quietly and convincingly, for the return of a Scottish Parliament.

On the two questions posed by the Referendum - `I agree that there should be a Scottish parliament' and `I agree that a Scottish parliament should have tax-varying powers' - the results were 74.3% and 63.5% respectively, on a turnout of 60.4%. The emphatic result surprised many commentators, and delighted politicians on the YES-YES side, particularly the government ministers who took the decision, for which they were widely condemned, to rely on a two-question referendum.

The NO-NO campaign concentrated solely on knocking the aspirational case put by their opponents. In particular, tax-raising powers became the focus of their campaigning, to such an extent that there were real fears that the second question could fail. The orthodoxy that says people won't vote for taxes was, therefore, destroyed as the electors demonstrated that they understood that a parliament without tax-raising powers would be a nonsense or, as Alex Salmond (leader of the SNP) put it, ``the people of Scotland gave a very intelligent answer to a very stupid question''.

     
For nationalists, the massive endorsement of the Parliament is merely the latest evidence that Britain is dying, and that the resurgence in Scottish culture and national feeling paves the way for fundamental change.
So what have the Scots voted for, exactly? Was the groundswell of support for a `Parish Council' or `Home Rule'? The truth is somewhere in between. The proposals return to Edinburgh control over a wide range of, essentially domestic, issues, including Education, Health, Housing and the Judicial system. Westminster retains control over such issues as Social Security, Defence, International Relations. The Parliament will, therefore, be able to legislate on internal matters and will be funded by block grant from Westminster. It will also have the power to vary tax up to 3%. Significantly, there is consensus amongst the parties, with the exception of the Tories, that there should be gender equality amongst the members of the parliament, which should considerably improve the political culture in Scotland.

Thus we have, according to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, an extension of democracy - an elected legislature to match our institutions and aspirations - that will not threaten the Union.

The Tories say the scene is set for continual bickering, bad government and self-seeking politicians - some will say no change there then! - which will be the `slippery slope' to independence. The SNP argue that their role will not be to act as `spoilers', but to make the parliament as effective as possible which, they believe, will increase the demand for greater powers for the parliament, and ultimately will lead to independence.

The reaction to the result, given the slow build-up and the less than full-blooded nature of the proposals, was a little surprising. There was widespread delight, a sense of satisfaction that grew into a palpable mood of optimism and excitement. In a typically Scottish way, perhaps, a dour, workmanlike `90-minutes' led to unrestrained celebrations when the game was won on penalties, as people realised exactly what it was they had done. This mood of Scottish national self-confidence stood in stark contrast to the `grieveathon' of the previous weeks, which highlights the diverging paths the Scots will have to choose from.

Which path they will eventually choose is unclear. Those Unionists who have advocated a parliament have done so on the basis that it is part of Britain adapting to the modern world, rather than experiencing fundamental change. They recognise that the three pillars of Britishness - Monarchy, Empire and the Protestant religion that bound much of the UK in a common culture - have each in their own way diminished. Therefore, Britain must redefine or reinvent itself as a modern multi-national democracy, which involved a renegotiation of the Union between England and Scotland.

However, nationalists would argue that there has been a `paradigm shift' in the way Scots see and understand Britain. Scotland has always had a different view of sovereignty and the nature of the Union than the English, which underlies dissatisfaction with the Union. Thus, from the end of the empire through the slow disintegration of the monarchy, to the growing importance of Europe, Scots have been looking for alternatives to an outmoded and ineffective institution. Therefore, for nationalists the massive endorsement of the Parliament is merely the latest evidence that Britain is dying, and that the resurgence in Scottish culture and national feeling paves the way for fundamental change.

So the key question is; will a devolved parliament strengthen or weaken the union? Scottish academic, Tom Nairn, argues that Britain is unlikely to be reformed due to the unitary and absolute conception of the state. Therefore, for him `In an epoch of the provisional, the sole solution remains the actually attainable one: that which looks back as well as froward - sovereign statehood, also known as independence, and prescribed by the general rules still prevalent in Europe and the United Nations world.'

The future for Scottish politics therefore, looks interesting. The first elections will taken place in April 1999, the first Scottish Parliament in over 300 years, will convene in January 2000. Watch this space.

 


David Hewitt, is a member of the editorial collective of Liberation, a Scottish, left-nationalist magazine.

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