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Scotland: With the opening of its first parliament in almost 300 years, many Scots believe the country is headed for independence.

August 24, 1999|By Kevin Cullen | Kevin Cullen,BOSTON GLOBE

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Last month, as officials planned the ceremony to mark the opening of the first Scottish Parliament in nearly 300 years, an aide to Queen Elizabeth II suggested the monarch sit in the speaker's chair.

A Scottish official leaned over and discreetly informed the queen's aide that her majesty might want to sit elsewhere, given that there had been a war over a similar seating arrangement a few centuries ago.

It was a classically awkward moment for the English and the Scots, and it was one that would only feed the perception here that the British establishment in London knows little and cares less about Scotland.

But while the sitting of a Scottish Parliament for the first time since 1707 has not convinced most Scots that the English are any less indifferent toward them, it has forced independence-minded nationalists to rethink their position.

The devolution of power from London to Edinburgh is part of Prime Minister Tony Blair's attempt to give local government more authority. But it is also part of the government's strategy to weaken the independence movement in Scotland.

There are two schools of thought about what the new Parliament means. One, adhered to by the Blair administration, holds that it has made the independence movement irrelevant because devolution gives Scotland's 5 million people most of the autonomy they want. The Scottish Parliament has limited tax-raising power and will oversee health, education, housing and the criminal justice system.

Whetting the appetite

The other school holds that by leaving to the British Parliament in London ultimate control over how much money Scotland gets to spend -- not to mention control over foreign affairs, defense, social security and taxation -- the Parliament will only whet the appetite for greater autonomy and ultimate independence.

Alex Salmond is decidedly in the latter camp. As leader of the Scottish National Party, Salmond believes the new Parliament will be a steppingstone to independence.

"I think we'll get there in six or seven years," said Salmond, a 45-year-old economist who hasn't worn a kilt since he was 4 and considers national sovereignty more a matter of economics than emotion.

Still, the National Party uses popular appeal in seeking converts. In the hallway of its headquarters is a portrait of actor Sean Connery, who is an outspoken party supporter and who was applauded more warmly than the queen the day Parliament opened.

In several offices, there are posters of the Oscar-winning film "Braveheart," about the Scottish rebel William Wallace, who united Scotland's fractious clans and made life miserable for the English who colonized them.

While acknowledging that the new Parliament might produce an initial period of complacency, Salmond believes the independence movement is inexorable.

"Ten years ago, our party had 14 percent of the vote. Now, we have 30 percent of the vote. And we've done that with a powerful government in London that had every gun trained against us, and with a press that is totally hostile to us," said Salmond, whose party is often dismissed in the London-based national newspapers as hopelessly idealistic.

"Only two things can happen," he said. "One, the Parliament won't work. More likely, the Parliament is seen to work. But that raises the question: If it can run education, why can't it run the economy? It should be a real Parliament, not a hamstrung one."

70% voted against

Donald Dewar, the new Parliament's first minister and a former top aide to Blair, points out that 70 percent of voters cast ballots for parties opposed to independence. While that is true, there also has been a resurgence of Scottish pride in the almost two years since the Scots voted overwhelmingly to set up their own Parliament. While Salmond has an aversion to kilts, a growing number of Scottish men wear them at their weddings.

What angers Salmond and other nationalists is that while Blair has spent so much time trying to end the politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland, he will not consider Scottish independence. They believe their strict adherence to democratic methods, their fostering of the quietest revolution of the 20th century, has been underappreciated.

"No one got so much as a nosebleed over Scottish independence, and Blair treats the subject with utter contempt," Salmond said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if those who conducted themselves democratically were accorded the same attention and respect as those who don't?"

While polls show a hefty majority against independence, what is striking in conversations here in the month after Parliament opened is how many people who oppose independence have nonetheless concluded that it is probably inevitable.

At 18, James Gallagher is studying astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. He believes there will be independence within 20 years, and that it will be a disaster.

"If Scotland goes independent, I'm out of here," he said.

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