Disuniting the Kingdom

Devolution: Elections for regional assemblies Thursday take British politics into uncharted territory.

May 02, 1999

THE FIRST Scottish parliament in three centuries and first Welsh assembly in seven will be elected Thursday. This is part of the British Labor government's plan for "devolution," which restores elected regional government for Greater London and Northern Ireland, introducing it in Scotland and Wales. Devolution is also meant to solve such problems as periodic outbreaks of Celtic nationalism.

All are different. Scotland was a kingdom, united to England in fact in 1603 and in law in 1707. Welsh is a language and culture seeking a country. Northern Ireland is the part of Ireland less Irish than the rest.

The new arrangements do not promise independence for England, which has no government other than the United Kingdom parliament. There, several important Cabinet secretaries are Scots and the prime minister is Scottish-educated. Even if Scottish nationalism does not grow, England-for-the-English fever may take its place.The election campaign in Scotland is exciting because the great Conservative Party has dwindled to little and the Liberal Democrats to less. The Labor Party is expected to gain the most votes and form a regional government, possibly needing a coalition partner.

The Scottish National Party, campaigning for independence, was about even-steven in the polls because Scots had become disenchanted with Labor's centrism and local corruption. Stoking fears of independence, Labor regained the lead, but the Scottish Nationalists will come in a strong second.

What British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government failed to appreciate from Quebec's experience is that when one of two parties capable of forming a government demands secession, that becomes the issue. Every election is about it.

So long as Scots must vote Scot Nat to chuck Labor out, the place of Scotland in the United Kingdom has not been settled. Labor may win this time, but after Scots grow weary of that party, then what?

In Wales, the problem is opposite. It is hard to tell an election is going on. The key issue is whether half the electorate will turn out, and whether the new assembly can have credibility afterward.

Wales could use a bit of Scotland's excitement, and Scotland some of Wales' stability.

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