Britain heads for reforming of power

Scots, Welsh to elect regional governments

Blair seeks validation

May 06, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- The Scots will be voting for their first Parliament since 1707. The Welsh will be electing the first one they have ever had. And Prime Minister Tony Blair will be looking for validation of his 2-year-old government's transformation of how the British govern themselves.

The elections of members of the two new legislatures and of 362 councils across Britain today are being called the most important midterm balloting in the country's history. In addition to providing the traditional barometer of a government, this year's elections confirm Britain's move to decentralize political authority.

It is an undertaking central to Blair's program of what he calls radical reform for Britain, and one that is being eyed with interest elsewhere in Europe.

"Don't put all this at risk," Blair said in outlining what he said were his government's achievements and calling for a big turnout in a televised campaign address Tuesday night, an event that is itself rare in British local elections.

More than 12,000 councillors, 129 members of the Scottish Parliament and 60 members of the National Assembly of Wales are to be elected.

While Blair has been eager to portray the vote as a referendum on national issues -- an arena where opinion polls show his party with far greater voter appeal than his dispirited Conservative opponents -- the races often turn on local concerns beyond the reach of a popular national leader's coattails.

And nowhere has that been truer than here, where the Scottish Nationalist Party, which proposes full independence, turned long-held local resentment of rule from London into early campaign success that provoked predictions of the imminent breakup of the United Kingdom.

Running 15 points ahead of Labor in opinion polls during the summer, the Scottish Nationalists stumbled badly over two gaffes by their leader, Alex Salmond, a former bank oil analyst with a good grasp of political economics, a wry sense of humor and a talent for tweaking the English that was unfailing until this campaign.

The Salmond episodes left the impression that the Nationalists were in over their depth in national and international politics. Labor appears to have recaptured the lead and probably will end up controlling the Parliament either by itself or in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats. If such an arrangement emerges, that would mark another first in British politics arising out of this election.

"Devolution," the name by which the move to allocate more power to the various parts of the United Kingdom goes, appears to be on course, with its backers expected to emerge in control of the legislatures here and in Cardiff, Wales, where the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru (pronounced plyde KUM-ry), is running behind Labor.

Devolution was a principal plank in Blair's campaign platform, and he moved quickly to hold referendums in Scotland and Wales to gain local approval for setting up the two legislatures.

Scotland, with its distinct sense of nationhood and separate legal and educational systems, voted yes overwhelmingly. Wales, where national identity is more elusive, passed the measure by a fraction of a percent. Unlike the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru is not an independence party.

The new regional governments will have authority over local government, health, education, transportation, the environment and culture.

The Scottish Parliament will have tax-setting and law-making powers, though the Welsh National Assembly will not. The British Parliament will continue to control defense and foreign policy, taxation and social security.

Under the Blair program, London will get its first popularly elected mayor and an assembly later this year, and regions of England in the middle and north of the country will be encouraged to think of future local governments for their areas.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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