Politics: Scots parliament put on fast track

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The Independent Online
DONALD DEWAR, the Secretary of State for Scotland, yesterday announced that the Scottish parliament could open for business in July next year, six months early, after a surprise opinion poll suggested that the Nationalist leader Alex Salmond could be its first minister.

Jubilant Scottish Nationalists said the poll giving the SNP a 5 per cent lead over Labour could make them the largest party in the new Scottish parliament, and that would give them the "moral authority" to demand a referendum on breaking the union between Scotland and England.

The announcement by Mr Dewar that the parliament could start early was welcomed by the SNP but it was seen at Westminster as an attempt to take attention away from the opinion poll boost to SNP morale. The Tory spokesman, Michael Ancram described it as a "panic measure" by Mr Dewar.

The Government had planned the new parliament to open in January 2000 but the Secretary of State said: "The sooner the Parliament takes over the better."

Mr Dewar said the Government would announce a final decision on the timing "shortly" after consulting the other parties.

Welcoming the move to bring forward the start date, the SNP leader challenged the Government to bring forward the date for the elections to the parliament. "The new Labour government have deeply disappointed the expectations of the people of Scotland. They didn't expect a new Labour government to behave like the old Tory government. They didn't expect them to rigidly stick to Tory spending plans."

Downing Street played down the opinion poll. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "I'm consistent in never responding to opinion polls, be they up or down. I'm equally consistent in saying that once people focus on elections to bodies that have real power, then they may give very different answers."

The SNP leader said the poll showed that while Tony Blair remained popular in England, the SNP had overtaken Labour in Scotland. That was a clear signal that Scotland supported the SNP's commitment to Scottish independence, he said, although other opinion polls have cast doubt on that claim.

The poll of more than 1,000 electors across Scotland by System Three for the Herald newspaper gave Labour 36 per cent (down 4), the SNP 41 (up 1), Conservatives 11 (up 3) and Liberal Democrats 10 (no change). If the voting intentions were repeated in the elections next May, it would produce a hung Scottish parliament but the SNP could seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, having refused to do a deal with the Tories.

However, the poll also shows that the Liberal Democrats could be the powerbrokers in the Scottish parliament. They could choose to keep a minority Labour Party in power, giving Mr Dewar the seat as first minister, after he steps down as Secretary of State.

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