Leading Article: The Scots should seek independence

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JOHN MAJOR was right when he cried seven years ago, in his awful, strangled tones, "Wake up! The Union is in danger". So it is, and so it should be. A union that cannot command the settled support of one of its constituents does not deserve to survive. Now, at last, as the campaign for elections to the Scottish parliament begins in earnest, the people of Scotland at least are waking up to what devolution means.

After getting the fright of its life, the Labour Party is off to a good start, pulling ahead of the Scottish National Party in the opinion polls. But this cannot conceal the underlying truth that Mr Major was right, and that the Labour/Liberal Democrat argument that limited home rule would stanch the demand for independence was wrong.

Far from taking the national question out of Scottish politics, a parliament in Edinburgh ensures that it will be even more central than before. That is not healthy for Scotland. Too much of Scottish national sentiment consists of an anti-English feeling, or if not "anti" then a feeling that all the ills of Scotland can be blamed on London. A Scottish parliament may have responsibility for education or housing policy, but like local councils, will only chafe against the constraints of budgets set in London.

This is not sustainable. Scotland is entering a one-way, Quebec-style airlock, in which the separatists need just one referendum to leave the United Kingdom. It would save a lot of time, effort and distraction if the people of Scotland chose to move quickly down this slipway.

There are good arguments against such a course. Nationalism, as we can see in the Balkans, can be an ugly thing. But nationalism would be a healthier force in an independent Scotland than in a grievance-loaded province.

Another obstacle to independence is the unattractive opportunism of the SNP, demonstrated this week by Alex Salmond's posturing against Nato strikes in Yugoslavia. If the Scots could achieve independence without having to vote for the SNP, it would at least force Mr Salmond's party to define a credible set of policies on the bread-and-butter issues.

It may be that the momentum towards independence will also change the Labour Party in Scotland (another political force in urgent need of reform), and produce a realignment of nationalist Labour with parts of the SNP and Liberal Democrats, embodying the consensual political values of John Smith in an independent Scotland.

The other argument posed against independence is that it would weaken England. If so, the English seem remarkably calm in the face of the threat. Most English and Welsh probably regard the secession of Scotland with the same equanimity with which they accepted independence for India or Kenya. Their attitude, rightly, is: if it is what the Scots want, why not?

So the question comes back to whether the Scots should want it or not. And the answer must be yes, if in the Edinburgh parliament a new national leadership can be fashioned to give expression to progressive, pluralist and pro-European values. An independent Scotland within the European Union would escape the whinge mentality of partial devolution, take responsibility for its own problems, and yet remain in partnership with its neighbours.