PRIME Minister Tony Blair is on a mission to keep the United Kingdom united. Unnoticed outside, he has been visiting Scotland week after week in the final days of campaigning for its new parliament. He's ostensibly fighting for a Labour government in Scotland but in fact he's trying to save Britain from breaking up, the closest it has come to since England's union with Scotland in 1707.
Come May 6 and a total of 129 MSPs (members of the Scottish Parliament) will be elected for a four-year term, 73 of them in straight election and 56 through a system of proportional representation. The Queen will open Scotland's first parliament for almost 300 years on July 1 in the midst of controversy; Scotland is deeply divided over whether she should remain head of state for Scotland any more.
Blair is struggling to tame the genie he let out. Labour had pledged a separate Scottish parliament in its election manifesto in the face of bitter opposition from the Conservatives who warned that it would be the beginning of Britain's break-up. That promise had helped Labour sweep Scotland. The Conservatives did not win a single one of the 73 seats for the Westminster Parliament from Scotland. But Thatcher might be proved right yet again.
For, it's a two-horse race. Opinion polls tie Labour neck and neck with the Scottish National Party (SNP) which is going all out for independence from England. The SNP is ready with plans "to divide up the assets and liabilities of the British state," Angus Robertson from the party told Outlook in Edinburgh. "That should not present insurmountable problems," he said. "No one has greater experience of giving up empire than Britain."
But the SNP cannot constitutionally declare independence with a simple majority in the Scottish parliament. "We're going for devolution, not separation," an official told Outlook in Edinburgh. "That will be so even if the SNP wins." An SNP majority in an election or a referendum that might follow can be reflective but not operative.
The Scottish parliament can debate anything but by itself change little; London would have to take the decision to get rid of it. But British leaders have said they will honour that majority verdict if it comes—and they are working hard to stop it coming.
The Scots are already carving out the finer details in the wake of the debate between devolution and separation. The SNP manifesto looks at "a separate Scottish army that will play a greater peacekeeping role". It plans to go free of nuclear weapons. At present about 90 per cent of British nuclear weapons are based in Scotland. "The Trident (nuclear submarine) sails in and out of Scottish waters," says Robertson. "We plan to change that."
THE debate took a sharp edge last week when SNP leader Alex Salmond went on television to condemn the raids on Yugoslavia as an act of "dubious legality but above all of unpardonable folly". Blair condemned the remark as "shameless" and the foreign secretary accused Salmond of becoming the "toast of Belgrade". Sal-mond's comments implied that if the SNP were to win an independent Scotland, Scottish pilots would take no part in the bombing along with English pilots. And no one missed what this presaged for the future: an independent Scotland would be prepared to go against the English with whom it has been united for centuries within the United Kingdom.
But the SNP campaign is "not just about armies and embassies and how high our flag is flying", says Robertson. "It's about taking control of our future socially, economically and politically." The SNP wants to scrap the pound for the Euro, cut interest rates and build a smaller foreign service to promote industry, tourism and inward investment.
But how did this separatist surge come about in Scotland? It's in good measure a reaction to England's tight-fisted control over Scotland. Blair is working towards converting that separatism into a form of federalism. Much like India did 50 years ago. The Scottish parliament mirrors India's state assemblies far better than the parliament at Westminster.
London will keep control of the constitution, defence, foreign affairs, financial and economic matters, immigration, national security and the civil service. The Scottish parliament can vote on health, education, local government, social work, housing, the police, tourism and agriculture. This is again akin to the divisions between Central and state powers in India. The Scottish parliament will have limited authority to vary the basic income tax by three per cent either way. So far just about everything in Edinburgh has been run from London. Scotland has been under something like President's rule for almost 300 years—and nobody outside has noticed. Until recent months, not even London.
"Divorce is expensive business," say Labour posters with alarming maps of a Scotland axed from England. Labour fig-ures an appeal to expense will work with the Scots; that Scotland gets England's money if it stays in Britain, and so it had better. The SNP challenged that claim vigorously last week claiming that Scottish money has gone to England. Tricky calculations, and there isn't an agreed number accepted on either side of the border.
Labour is trying to stop Carlyle from becoming a Wagah. "It makes no sense to separate to create the trappings of a 19th century state with its own army, navy, air force and diplomatic missions," says Christopher Winslow from Labour. "The SNP have made separation a Scottishness test," he says. "But we can be just as Scottish as a part of Britain."
Scotland could stand alone but need not, Labour is arguing. "Our commitment to social justice does not stop at Carlyle," says Winslow. "I don't recognise something intrinsically so different between someone in Edinburgh and someone in Newcastle that I want a country separate from his." The separatist demand, he says, is "absurd and backward-looking". If Scotland claims North Sea oil, why not Shetland? "That argument for separation can lead you into amazingly intricate and fairly foolish fights," he says.
And yet the process of separation has already begun. "It will be a continuous process, not some big bang," Prof David McCrone from the University of Edinburgh told Outlook. Already, civil servants in Scotland have begun to speak of "bilateral relations" with London as a matter of course. Scotland already has an office in Brussels, papers from the European Union are sent straight to Edinburgh without being routed through London.
Builders digging up a site next to the Queen's palace in Edinburgh expect to see the modern new parliament building come up in two years. Until then a chamber in the Church of Scotland hall is almost ready for the Scottish parliament to sit in. Labour might win this time, but separatism is a hornet's nest that won't settle with this election.