Scots plan a Parliament unlike British 'bear pit'

The people of Scotland are set to toss out centuries of British tradition May 6 when they elect their own national Parliament - the first in the 300 years since the union between Scotland and England.

Pomp and ceremony, in the form of ushers wearing knee breeches and strange hats, will have no place. Nor will late-night sittings, and what Scottish Secretary of State Donald Dewar calls the in-your-face politics of the House of Commons, 400 miles to the south in London.

"We have decided we want a Parliament for the people," says Mr. Dewar, who is likely to win the newly created post of Scotland's first minister (at present he is responsible for Scottish affairs in the London-based United Kingdom government).

"Arcane forms of address will have no place in the new chamber. We shall address each other as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms., instead of 'honorable member.' We shall vote electronically instead of filing through division lobbies.

"And the chamber itself, which is horseshoe-shaped, has been deliberately designed to avoid the physical confrontation you cannot escape in the House of Commons, where members sit facing each other." Seating is to be unassigned: first come, first served.

As election day looms, workmen are putting the finishing touches on the Scottish Parliament's temporary home - the general-assembly building of the Church of Scotland, lying in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

At the other end of Edinburgh's "Royal Mile," and opposite Holyrood House, where the queen stays when visiting the Scottish capital city, bulldozers are clearing the site for Parliament's permanent home.

It is the design of the Spanish husband-and-wife architectural team, Enric and Benedetta Miralles, who beat 70 contenders to win the contract.

They have designed an ultramodern complex linked to a debating chamber. It will be ready for parliamentary business in the fall of 2001.

Mr. Miralles has described the buildings as "petal-shaped and arranged at different angles to achieve maximum light."

He and Ms. Miralles have provided for a roof garden, and a public garden overlooked by a Parliament dining hall. In line with the "family friendly" theme, there will be an area for infant care (as many as a third of the 129 members are expected to be women).

There will be a bicycle shed for members who prefer to pedal to parliamentary sessions.

TWO years ago, Scots, voting in a referendum, decided that they wanted their own Parliament. Since the early 18th century Scotland has been ruled from London. Scottish members of Parliament have sat in the House of Commons.

After the devolution vote, Dewar says, soundings of popular opinion produced a theme: People wanted to get away from "the politics of the bear pit."

Parliamentary proceedings will be sharply different from those at Westminster. Instead of most bills being introduced by the government, cross-party committees will initiate legislation. Official documents will be written in accessible language.

Officials at Edinburgh's Scottish Office, which currently administers Scotland but will lose that status when full parliamentary sessions open in July, say the atmosphere in the new Parliament will be relaxed.

The full Parliament will sit only three days a week, says a Scottish Office spokesman. "The rest of the week will be devoted to committee sessions, and it is likely that the committees will move from place to place, according to local concerns. For example, when oil is on the agenda, the ... energy committee may sit in Aberdeen, [center] of Scotland's petroleum industry."

Secretary of State Dewar forecasts that parliamentary democracy, Scottish style, will have a strong appeal to Scotland's 5 million people. And he thinks the bright, new complex will help.

"It will be a focus for the democratic aspirations of Scots, and an image of Scotland's new position within the United Kingdom as we move into the 21st century," Dewar says.

"I count myself extremely lucky to be involved in this project, and look back on the process so far with enjoyment - and not a little pride," he says.

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