JOHN MAJOR'S government is bidding to head off determined moves by Scottish nationalists and devolutionists to secure greater independence for their country.
But a series of proposals aimed at giving Scotland's 72 members of the London Parliament a larger say in decisionmaking has been denounced by the government's opponents.
Alex Salmond, firebrand leader of the small Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants full independence for Scotland, called the government's proposals "a constitutional charade."
More menacingly, John Smith, leader of the opposition Labour Party, which favors a separate parliament for Scotland, on March 12 attacked the prime minister's blueprint as "timorous tokenism" and warned that the people of Scotland would not be "hoodwinked."
He said Mr. Major was trying to divert attention away from Scotland's economic difficulties and compared the prime minister to a rabbit caught "blinking in the glare as the juggernaut of slump and recession comes bearing down on him."
Despite his claim of wanting to give Scots a better chance to run their own affairs, Major has refused to reject a proposal that promises to become the litmus test of his government's Scotland policies: privatizing Scotland's water supplies.
In a March 8 public opinion poll published in The Scotsman (Scotland's national daily newspaper), 86 percent of Scots said they were against taking water out of the public sector and into the private sector. Even among Conservatives, 7 of 10 respondents were hostile to privatizing what they regard as a vital national resource.
Major has deputed Scottish-born Ian Lang, secretary of state for Scotland, to spearhead the London government's campaign to ease nationalist pressures "north of the border."
Mr. Lang says his package of measures unveiled on March 9 is the first serious reappraisal of the relationship between England and Scotland since the two nations signed a treaty of political union in 1707. The union makes Scotland part of the United Kingdom. What angers a growing number of Scots is that most decisions affecting their lives are made London.
Mr. Salmond, who leads a voluble group of three members of Parliament at Westminster, complains that North Sea oil and gas have been treated by the London government as essentially English resources, and that the 5 million people of Scotland have not benefited enough from petroleum profits in the last 20 years.
He says proposals to privatize Scottish water suffer from similar defects.
The SNP's nationalist philosophy includes a deep-rooted belief that the people of Scotland are culturally distinct from the English. Salmond has said that if Scotland achieves independence under SNP leadership it will apply for membership of the European Community as a separate state.
Lang's list of measures includes an offer of more debating time for Scottish parliamentarians at Westminster, the appointment of more Scots to public agencies, and the creation of "information points" in small Scottish towns to enable citizens to learn the details of government policy.
The Scottish Office, which administers central government policy in Scotland, would be given "a higher profile," Lang told the Commons. But he said he "utterly rejects" the arguments of those who want Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom, either by separating from England or taking "the slippery slope of a separate parliament."
Although Salmond and the SNP indulge in fiery rhetoric, Labour Party policies appear to offer a sharper threat to the union as it currently exists.
Labour holds 49 of Scotland's 72 parliamentary seats. Scottish-born Mr. Smith, who took over the leadership last year, claims that Labour's gradualist approach to devolution has greater popular appeal than the SNP's demands for independence.
The SNP may have damaged itself in the eyes of its supporters by voting with the Major government against Labour in a Commons motion on the Maastricht Treaty on March 9. The government lost the vote.
Smith told the annual conference of the Scottish Labour Party March 12 that he was "passionately committed" to a separate parliament for Scotland. He said that in its first year in office a Labour government would create a Scottish parliament and "transfer legislative and political power" from London to Edinburgh, Scotland's historic capital.
A Labour Party official said afterward that such a move would not mean breaking the 1707 Treaty of Union, but the relationship between the two nations would be "much looser."
Smith believes Major and Lang have played into his hands by refusing to heed the clamor against water privatization in Scotland. On the same day that Lang published his plan to give Scots greater autonomy, Major spoke approvingly of water privatization and was promptly attacked by Tom Clarke, Labour's spokesman on Scottish affairs, for being "mired in Thatcherite dogma."
Smith's advisers hope that by exploiting the water privatization issue they will be able to undermine Major's plan for Scotland and simultaneously build Labour support in the next general election.
Alexander Falconer, a Scottish Labour member of the European Parliament, says privatizing water in England in 1989 had increased the price to the consumer by 43 percent. The same thing would happen in Scotland, he says. Adroitly handled, the offer of a separate Scottish parliament promises to boost Labour's chances at the next general election. The Scotsman newspaper's March 8 public opinion poll revealed 77 percent support for a Scottish parliament.