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Is It Power to the People Or a Breakup of Britain?

In September, Scots and Welsh will vote on whether they want their own assemblies

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 1997



LONDON

The United Kingdom is set to become less united. And, warn some politicians and analysts, may eventually pull apart completely.

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After nearly three centuries as a fully integrated part of the British realm, Scotland will be offered its own separate parliament, with tax-raising powers.

Voters in Wales, too, will have a chance to opt for their own parliamentary assembly. But newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to let Scots and Welsh decide their constitutional future in referendums Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, respectively, is running into flak.

Opposition is coming not only from the Conservative Party - which has called the plan "dangerous, damaging, and dishonest" - but also from Scots and Welsh who are either happy with being ruled from London, or want even more independence than Mr. Blair's plan is offering.

Niall Ferguson, a Scots-born professor at Oxford University, predicts "bitter arguments about money" between London and Edinburgh, the city chosen as the seat of Scotland's parliament. Currently, the London government decides how money is spent.

But Blair's plan has been welcomed by his Labour Party, which won an overwhelming victory in the May 1 parliamentary elections. Blair's hope, his aides say, is that devolution will bring the process of government in Britain closer to the people affected by it.

When Donald Dewar, Blair's secretary of state for Scotland, unveiled his plan July 24, it won widespread support in Parliament. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, which wants full independence, praised it as "a good jumping-off point" for "securing our ultimate objective."

When a printed version of the Scottish devolution package went on sale in stores last week, long lines formed in the capital, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.

As voters scrutinize the details of the proposed measures, a lively political debate is well under way.

Under the plan for Scotland, a 129-member parliament would be elected in 1999. It would have power to raise - or lower - income-tax rates by 3 percent over or under the national average. Foreign, defense, and security policies would still be London's responsibility, but most everything else would be decided in Edinburgh.

The devolution package for Wales would confer fewer powers on a 60-seat assembly in the capital, Cardiff.

It would not have authority to raise taxes. But Ron Davies, the government's secretary of state for Wales, says the assembly would provide "a voice for Wales." More local control, Mr. Davies told Parliament, was "a process, not an event," and suggested that the proposed Welsh assembly could acquire greater powers over time.

Public-opinion polls in recent years have shown a stronger demand for devolution in Scotland than in Wales. But majorities in both regions have made it clear they want greater freedom from London.

When a previous Labour government held a similar referendum in 1979, voters in Scotland rejected the proposals. Blair says the mood of the Scottish people has changed and that a "yes" vote is virtually certain.

Many Scots and Welsh, however, are likely to prove resistant to the offer of a parliament of their own.

In Scotland, a campaign calling itself Think Twice has won the endorsement of Britain's Conservative Party leader, William Hague, who warns that the United Kingdom risks destroying itself.

Conservative Party spokesmen have pointed out that if Scotland gains more power, including the power to raise taxes, it should receive less funding from London. The issue of how much money Scotland should receive from London is likely to prove highly contentious during the referendum campaign.

If voters in Scotland and Wales do decide on separate legislatures, the issue will then be debated by the British Parliament. The issue will be decided by a simple majority of votes cast.

The Labour government has warned Conservative Party members of the House of Lords, where opposition peers are in a majority, not to attempt to frustrate the will of the Scots and the Welsh.

Peter Watson, a lawyer in Glasgow, said he was not enthusiastic about having a Scottish parliament but "was reconciled to the fact that most Scots appear to want one."

But Bronwyn Davis, a schoolteacher near Cardiff who speaks the Welsh language, says she is "over the moon at the prospect of an assembly" for Wales.