Doing their own thing? Labour raises the flag for a Scottish assembly. Tories sneer. James Cusick insp ects the battle lines

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The Independent Online
April 10 1992 - in Glasgow it felt like Scotland's equivalent of the storming of the Bastille. The Conservatives had won the general election, but once again Scotland had overwhelmingly voted Labour. So, like the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europ e who had taken to their city squares in mass protest, the Scots would show that Westminster would not be their master for another five years.

Flags were waved. Crowds gathered in George Square in Glasgow. Football songs were adapted. Constitutions for all-party protest groups were drawn up. "Scotland United" - a cute political pun on soccer-style solidarity - emerged as the force that would deliver Scotland what its electorate had by implication voted for: devolved rule.

The optimism that Westminster could not ignore all this lasted as long as it took for the reality to sink in that Westminster could indeed ignore all this: a few days at most.

Now, nearly three years down the road, Labour has again raised the flag of optimism in Scotland by presenting its plans for a Scottish Assembly. Walworth Road, Labour's party headquarters, knows only too well that powerlessness frustrates and absolute powerlessness, frustrates absolutely. Gordon Brown's keynote speech yesterday indicated that his party is now confident enough of its electability to talk of dispensing and dispersing power throughout the UK.

After the general election, John Major travelled north and proclaimed the Union sacrosanct. Three quarters of the Scottish electorate (adding together the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats) had voted, he said, for a United Kingdom. His recent comments on Labour's latest devolution plans as "a sort of teenage madness" indicate no shift in that position. Despite No 10's comments in the Anglo-Irish declaration that the British Government had "no selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland, there is not the remotest possibility that a similar Anglo-Scottish declaration will ever emerge from a Major-inhabited Downing Street.

Thus the devolution debate in any future election campaign will be fought on the ground of what Mr Brown revealed yesterday. The old English proverb, that vows are made in storms but forgotten in calms, appears, to Labour's credit, not to have been heeded by the party's policy makers: under a Labour government Scotland will get an assembly. So will Wales. And so will the English regions.

Mr Brown put what he called "the case for decentralisation", indicating that he wanted "power devolved to communities in a position to take more control over their own decisions". But as Professor Bill Millar, head of politics at Glasgow University, poi n ts out: "Power devolved is power retained." He says that "the parliamentary meaning of devolution goes back to the idea of devolved sub-committees. As long as the committees do what is liked, they are left alone. But if the government doesn't like whatt hey are doing, they are slapped down."

What Labour is proposing, said Professor Millar, falls far short of federalism. And there are inherent dangers: that by releasing limited power, but retaining a London veto, they fuel expectations for self-rule that are bound to be frustrated. And that will feed support for the cause of independence.

Mr Brown's internal subsidiarity, focused on an elected chamber of MSAs (Members of the Scottish Assembly) will, he claims, take over the work that an unelected Scottish Office already does, removing powers and budgets from the unelected quango members that vastly outnumber elected politicians.

Although, publically, the Scottish National Party remains firmly committed to full independence, and refuses to become involved "in another party's policy making" , among senior ranks in the party there is a not quite disguised glee that here at last is an opportunity for a political forum that can expose the contrasts between a changing Scotland and a stationary, essentially Conservative England.

Mr Brown's devolution package includes decision-making and spending powers on health, education, industry and social services. From the latest opinion polls, the political arithmetic would indicate that if the chamber is filled by proportional representation Labour would be the ruling party on 49 per cent, the SNP on 26 per cent, the Tories on 13 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats on 11 per cent.

One factor that might constrain the assembly from becoming an effective "national voice" for Scotland is the difficulty of finding "top-flight" politicians to fill its benches. Professor Millar says: "The Scottish people would look very hard at the people there and the standard of debate. They would need to pedal very hard to keep up with their heavyweight counterparts in Westminster. If they did not immediately impress, the danger is that any assembly would be branded a place for the second ranks and therefore could never assume national authority or credibility."

The SNP have been quick to acknowledge the significance of a premier league assembly. Their leader in the Commons, Margaret Ewing, said on BBC radio yesterday that she would give up her Westminster seat and head for the likely seat of the assembly in Edinburgh. There the SNP would not be an ignored gathering; it could build a national reputation. And it could expose and use to its advantage any potential confrontation between Edinburgh and London.

Finance is the likely immediate area of conflict. Mr Brown has indicated that the assembly in Scotland, unlike the proposals for Wales, or the English regional assemblies, would be tax gathering. So could it raise tax if it wanted? Would the Scottish electorate let it? Would Westminster, if there was trouble, retain some control - perhaps "capping" the assembly's financial plans? All this will form part of the dog fight likely to feature in not just the Scottish campaigns, but throughout Britain.

While the SNP will use the trump card of Europe, insisting that a united and effectively federal Europe does away with the need for any control from Westminster (replacing London with Brussels, say some critics), the Tories will raise the spectre of a dis-United Kingdom, with all the knock-on questions: Would England remain a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council? Could England attend the G7 gatherings? And would Scotland's international markets suffer if Great Britain was not so great?

The reality at the last general election was that the electorate north of the border seemed more worried over jobs and the state of the health service than it did over G7 or the United Nations. Nevertheless, Mr Major's early posting of his Unionist credentials, and now Mr Brown's riposte that "Scotland is a prime example of remote government in need of reform" and that the time has come for "constitutional change", show the battle lines are well and truly drawn.

Even the SNP thinks it can score in the constitutional debate. While George Robertson, the shadow Scottish Secretary, dismmissed independence yesteday as "not the issue", Mrs Ewing believes that independence is the onl catalyst that can force constitutional change in England. The SNP doing the English a favour? Apparently yes.

And a recent study carried out by Glasgow University, which interviewed 86 per cent of all the UK's elected politicians, local and national, and polled a cross-section of the population, produced some surprising results. In the all-UK figures, 41 per ce n t thought increased self-government for England was a good idea. But 54 per cent of the Scots thought the English should have their own assemblies. This curious cross-border political largesse may, one think, have formed part of Labour's own thinking tha t what is good enough for Edinburgh, ought to be good enough for Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol and wherever. But from the outbursts of horror from the Conservatives, that included the assembly plans being labelled a "rag-bag of proposals with some havin g more powers than others", Labour still have to furnish more to lessen the Tories' apparently honestly-held belief that English assemblies are being coralled into a debate in which they have no place.

One Scottish Labour MP admitted yesterday: "If we are to win this argument, we have to convince the electorate that we have not tagged on English assemblies to this policy simply because we are worried about the potential power of an Edinburgh assembly. I suppose we sound like the Three Musketeers: `All for one, and one for all'."