Devolution White Paper: Local hero stakes his claim

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The Independent Online
Oh, ye'll tack the high road, I'll tack the low road and Donald Dewar'll tack the middle road. And with any luck, in early 2000, it'll lead the Scottish Secretary and his grateful people to a brand new Scottish Parliament. Yesterday he was making history, as he introduced to the Commons his plans for getting there.

In appearance the cadaverous member for Glasgow Anniesland makes an improbable midwife. His stooped frame, long nose and lugubrious looks would far better suit the profession of burying than the vocation of delivering. The fact that he is renowned for his wit merely suggests one of those unlikely, but not completely impossible combinations - such as the Singing Nun, the Laughing Policeman, or the Scottish Tory.

But from now on Dewar's droopy features are destined to join those of other national heroes in the Golden Treasury of Scottish History: Robert The Bruce, William Wallace, The Master of Ballantrae. It is his plan which stands the best chance in 300 years of reversing the long trend towards centralisation. He commended it to the House - in a voice which always sounds as though he is about to sneeze copiously all over those around him - with brevity and simplicity, lacking all unnecessary flourish.

Throughout Mr Dewar's statement the Conservative opposition was restless. In particular David Maclean (C, Penrith and the Border) an exiled Caledonian, who once opined that all aggressive, alcoholic beggars were Scots, now seemed to want to prove that the reverse was also true. "Hah!" "Ahah!" and "Ahahah!" interjected a febrile Mr Maclean.

The Conservatives - when in government - had not, of course, been entirely deaf to Scotland's national demands. Was it not they who had returned the Stone of Scone? And was it their fault that they couldn't find St Margaret's portion of the True Cross, stolen by Edward I at the same time? But as the Tory constitutional affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram (Devizes), pointed out, at least their Red Starring of the Stone from London to Edinburgh had not given rise to the constitutional anomaly of the West Lothian question. Mr Ancram himself was for seven months in 1974, the MP for East Lothian, before being asked - in October of that year - what may be called the East Lothian question, to whit: why don't you sod off to England?

Since then, every Conservative MP in Scotland has been asked the East Lothian question. But this has merely served to alter the emphasis of the Tory attack. Yesterday, they were all speaking of England. Did Mr Dewar understand the fury, the resentment that would be felt in Lincolnshire (Edward Leigh), Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and Epping Forest (Eleanor Laing) at the Scots MPs having a say in English affairs, when English MPs had no say in Scottish business?

Rubbish. We English only wanted union in the first place because of our eighteenth century wars with France. Now that - with the election of a Labour government - hostilities have ceased, we don't much mind what happens to it; there's loads more of us than there are of them, any way (that's why it's called the West Lothian, not the East Croydon question).

So I hereby challenge Messrs Luff, Laing and Leigh to produce all the Lothian letters sent to them from anxious English constituents. If it adds up to a hundred I'll sing "Ye Banks and Braes" on top of the Scott memorial. And if not, perhaps they'll belt up about it.

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