Edinburgh has a post-divorce party

Politics in the new parliament is an anti-climax, but home rule still calls for celebration
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EDINBURGH is a wonderful place for flags. The north wind sweeps over its high volcanic crags and steep rifts, and the city's banners stream and snap above the turrets. In the bright long midsummer evenings the whole town is festooned with dancing Union Jacks and swirling saltires.

What with the hearty pipers busking for hospices on every rocky corner of the Mound, it feels for all the world as if a wedding procession were on its way up the Royal Mile.

This week, however, the city celebrates a divorce. On Friday the Queen will open the new Scottish parliament in a ceremony saturated with historic echoes. The proceedings of the last Scottish parliament, in November 1706, end hurriedly in mid-sentence ("And suchlike another clause in these terms that"). But the Act of Union that made England and Scotland the largest free-trade area in 18th-century Europe (in its way it was a precursor of the Common Market) has been undone.

After its long imperial marriage to England, pretty Scotland is succumbing to a 300-year itch and embarking on a trial separation from her now tedious and pot-bellied husband. The Queen will preside over the untying of the knot and will (perhaps ironically) draw a big crowd into Edinburgh's narrow High Street. A children's procession will wave gaily painted Tibetan-style flags, accompanied by bagpipes; the Red Arrows may (or may not) swoop over the castle; brass bands will toot in Parliament Square; fiery beacons will light up Calton Hill; Sean Connery will wander through; there'll be ceilidhs and raves; and both Garbage and Scottish Opera will lay on open-air concerts in the Princes Street gardens.

Edinburgh is an experienced party-giver, and a week ahead of the big day the finishing touches were being smoothly applied. Police were exploring and sealing the drains on the Mound as a security measure; temporary stands were being flung up in front of the castle; gardeners were strimming the lawns and grassy slopes above Waverley station. The new parliament's gift shop was stocking up with own-brand chocolate, tea towels, mints and that famous local delicacy, Seville orange marmalade. The pavement cafes along the Royal Mile will have to pull their tables back to make room for the crowd but are bracing themselves for a bumper day. "Let's face it," said one resident. "It's just an excuse to get out the merry-go-round."

The symbolic resonance of the parliament, and the attendant celebrations, serves only to emphasise the lacklustre performance inside the chamber in the first few weeks. Edinburgh's hotels are crammed to the last room, but not because people want to see Lord Steel of Aikwood and Donald Dewar sidling in and out of the half-empty, Aegean-blue debating hall.

It's the Royal Highland Games this weekend, and Scotland's farmers have come to see livestock. Even a bright-eyed best-of-breed such as Alex Salmond can't compete with a shire horse.

Indeed, some of the early responses to the new parliament have been sour. The decision to build a stylish new building at the bottom of the hill, near the Palace of Holyroodhouse, has already provoked a deflating controversy.

The swanky new palace (don't say it has one chamber: the correct term is "unicameral") will cost pounds 109m, a sum guaranteed to provoke Dome-style criticism. At present it's merely a building site, a cluster of cranes and pile drivers crunching rubble beside a nearly complete and swanky- sounding luxury "ApartHotel".

One element of the project is finished already: a white tented pavilion, designed to house a Dynamic Earth exhibition, squats above the excavators like a spiky caterpillar.

Meanwhile, the proceedings in the parliament's temporary home, the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall, which gives out on to a narrow street filled with tour buses just opposite the Golden Bengal restaurant, are low-key. On Thursday there were two listless debates on the economy, sprinkled with the kind of corny slogans that led to such disillusionment with Westminster.

The new Labour Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, declining to blush over his absurd title, spoke of building frameworks and strategies to promote jobs and skills, or of creating a stable and competitive environment for knowledge-based industries.

Various Tories sought to remind him that taxation was the enemy of enterprise; a Liberal Democrat urged him to acknowledge the need for integrity and transparency in the parliament's own financial dealings.

The Nationalists sneered at the arrival of big foreign sharks such as Lloyds Bank (while simultaneously stressing the need for inward investment). Everyone mentioned globalisation. The odd backbencher rose to decry "18 years of Tory rule".

It was awfully familiar stuff. All agreed that the new parliament was paving the way, even if only in vacations: it had just voted to award itself a breathtaking 17 weeks of annual leave, and Donald Dewar was proposing a very modest workload for the first year: eight bills. That's politics for you.

On the symbolic and social level, the new political establishment is giving a sharp buzz to an already cosmopolitan city. Edinburgh's voters are a little confused. "I find myself in the curious position of having three MPs - one for Westminster, one for Scotland and one for Europe," said one. "And I don't know who any of them are."

But it feels like a party, and that's worth something in itself. There will be new hotels, new restaurants and new radio stations jostling for the custom of the politicians, consultants, pressure groups, lobbyists and journalists now swarming around the tourist spots, dodging Braveheart tour guides in search of a place to have a quiet spritzer. Property prices are zinging up. Local and civic pride comes spilling out of the shop windows. And on a clear day the sea looks blue. How it will feel in gloomy February is another question entirely.