Scots wake to a brave new world

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair flew to Edinburgh yesterday morning to hail an emphatic vote for a Scottish Parliament as the beginning of the end for "big centralised government". The people of Scotland had lit a flame that would sear through the outdated parts of Britain's constitution, the Prime Minister told cheering crowds in the heart of the capital.

For Scots, the prospect of their own parliament after 290 years was enough. But Mr Blair made plain that, for him, the decisive vote was the first act in a programme of change extending beyond next week's referendum for a Welsh assembly, to regional government in England, reform of the House of Lords and, implicitly, a less archaic monarchy.

"Now we have a chance to build that modern constitution for the United Kingdom that will see us through in the next century, proud of our history but dermined to live in our future," he said.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred in Parliament Square - Scotland's last legislature vanished with the Union of 1707 - Mr Blair said the benefits of the referendum victory would be felt throughout the UK.

"The era of big centralised government is over. This a time of change, renewal and modernity. This is the way forward." Devolution brought government "closer to the people and closer to the people's priorities".

A Scottish Parliament was backed by 75 per cent of the 2.4m people who voted in the two-question referendum and 63 per cent agreed it should have tax-varying powers. Fears of an inconclusive result were confounded by a 61.5 per cent turnout and even the arithmetical hurdles which thwarted 1979 referendum were comfortably surpassed.

The result was a personal triumph for Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland. And with such a resounding mandate, Tory opposition to Home Rule is falling away. As Mr Dewar put it, after a sleepless night and running on adrenalin: "The result exceeds all my expectations. It ends argument and dispute."

Elections to the 129-member are planned for spring 1999, with the Parliament coming into being on a site in the city yet to be decided by the turn of the millennium. It will have charge over most of Scotland's domestic affairs, including education, the health service, local government and agriculture and will be headed by a First Minister - in all likelihood Mr Dewar himself, combining the job of Scottish prime minister with his residual Westminster cabinet role.

Celebration across Scotland as a whole was muted. Voters seemed to have made their minds up on devolution at the May general election and even the last 100 hours of campaigning by party leaders failed to arouse public passions. But however undemonstrative, Scotland's own version of a "velvet revolution" is underway and as with those of eastern Europe, there will be ripple effects.

As the campaign has progressed, ministers have increasingly portrayed it as a forerunner to more regional autonomy in England. The Scottish parliament will decide how to spend its pounds 13bn-a-year grant from Westminster and will have power to raise a further pounds 450m by adding 3p to the basic rate of income tax.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, made no secret of his hope that the Parliament will lead to independence - noting that if he had been given a pounds 1 for every time he had mentioned independence during the last three weeks he would "the richest man in Scotland". But he said both he and Mr Dewar were united in believing change would only come if the Scottish people voted for it.

"Donald and I are solid chums," Mr Salmond quipped. Along with Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, they have formed an alliance for Home Rule which has surprised many observers.

This "culture of co-operation" will be needed in the new parliament where no party is likely to have an overall majority. And if proportional representation and coalition government works for Edinburgh, it could be on Mr Blair's agenda for a more modern Britain.