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Scots poised for Home Rule

Some 3.9 million voters are poised to usher in a new era
Some 3.9 million people in Scotland are entitled to vote in today's referendum and so introduce a new era in their history.

If they heed the words of a petition presented in Edinburgh yesterday and cast their vote "without fail in favour of the restitution of our native parliament" laws on most of the country's domestic affairs will be made in Scotland for the first time in nearly 300 years.

On two separate ballot sheets voters will be asked if they want a Scottish Parliament and if they believe it should have "tax varying" powers.

If, as opinion polls suggest, home rule is endorsed today a Scotland Bill will be introduced to the Westminster Parliament before Christmas.

The legislation is expected to receive royal assent by the summer or autumn of next year and elections would be held in the first half of 1999.

MSPs - Members of Scottish Parliament - would be elected under a form of proportional representation - 73 would be elected under the present first-past-the-post system and the remaining 56 selected from party lists. PR has been portrayed as a way of breaking the traditional Labour stranglehold on Scottish politics.

However, one opinion poll yesterday suggested that Labour could still win an outright majority in the 1999 election - precisely the outcome which Scots outside the Central Belt have always feared.

In 1979 when the last Labour government's devolution proposals narrowly failed it was partly because people in the Borders, north-east Scotland and Orkney and Shetland feared domination by the municipal socialists of the Glasgow region.

Headed by a First Minister the new executive and Scottish Parliament will have responsibility for functions which are already administered by the 12,000 civil servants of the Scottish Office.

Democratic control is following earlier "bureaucratic devolution". Scots will have control over their own health service, education and training, local government, housing, economic development, transport, law and order, the environment, farming and fishing, and sport and the arts. But not over monetary policy, employment legislation and social security.

It will be paid for, as now, by a Treasury block grant. This amounted to pounds 14bn last year but will be cut to pounds 12.8bn by the year 2000 when the Parliament comes into being.

The tax-varying power will enable the Parliament to vary the basic rate of income tax up or down by 3p. This would bring in about pounds 450m. Chancellor Gordon Brown has emphasised that the new Parliament must be prudent and is looking for any shortfall in funding to be made up by savings.

However, for most Scots and other residents north of the border going to the polls today it will be the emotion of home rule rather than the mechanics of government, and even taxation, that are uppermost.

It is an opportunity to take part in making history and one which as Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, said yesterday "will not come around again for a very long time".