New Politics in the UK
Britain's experiment with devolved power is fully underway. Last week's elections created new regional governing bodies for Scotland and Wales that will help forge the futures of those nations within a nation.
The bright promise of decentralized power is a flowering of culture and local development among the Welsh and Scots (and Northern Irish, who got their own assembly last year) that will benefit the wider nation. That's what Prime Minister Tony Blair had in mind when he said the elections should strengthen the unity of the United Kingdom, not hurt it.
Of course, some who hotly contested the elections have a different goal. They want separation. But the strongest such grouping, the Scottish Nationalist Party, did worse than its early rise in opinion polls presaged.
Mr. Blair's Labour Party won the largest number of seats in the Scottish Parliament, though not enough for a majority. It will have to join forces with the Liberal Democrats in a coalition. This is something new in Britain, where two main parties have normally traded power. But the proportional representation system introduced by these regional elections will boost prospects for smaller parties, making coalitions probable.
In fact, Scotland will test Labour's readiness to be yoked with a partner, since it and the Liberal Democrats sharply differ on the sensitive issue of university tuitions. Blair's party wants them as a way to control costs; Liberal Democrats firmly reject them.
In Wales, Labourites did worse than anticipated. Though the Welsh have long backed Labour, the party came up just short of a majority in the 60-member Welsh Assembly, which has less lawmaking authority than its Scottish counterpart. The Welsh nationalists of the Plaid Cymru party got an unexpected 17 seats.
In local council elections in the rest of the country, the lately down-and-out Conservatives did well enough to change the image of political free fall.
All this portends vigorous politics just ahead. The experiment will no doubt present challenges. But a degree of home rule in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland could well enhance union, not loosen it. Strong regional voices and local decisionmaking can be assets, addressing many concerns better than a central government can and bringing new ideas to the national level.