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Leading Article: A brave new chapter in the auld alliance

So Labour has kept its promise. After a full century of argument, Scotland today is closer to having her own parliament than at any time in the democratic era. There is a serious debate to be had, throughout the United Kingdom, about the fair distribution of MPs, resources and power. It will happen passionately through the rest of this year, first in the Scottish and Welsh referendum campaigns, and then nationally at Westminster. But, barring an extraordinary upset, the Edinburgh parliament will be sitting before the next general election. Those who hoped for sabotage inside the Cabinet have been disappointed. Yesterday Donald Dewar unveiled a detailed proposal that was in all key respects the same as the general promise Labour had taken into the election campaign.

There are those in Scotland who will disagree with the plan. It is true that the Government's belief that Westminster remains sovereign conflicts with the more populist belief among Labour and Liberal Democrats north of the border that it is the people who are sovereign. In an ultimate sense, we agree. We are firmly on the side of popular sovereignty. But, compared to the job of making devolution work inside the UK, that is an almost metaphysical question. It matters if the Scots want independence; but no one is seriously suggesting that they do, now; or that they would be forcibly denied it if they voted for it.

Others will suggest that the likely future cut in the number of Scottish constituencies represented at Westminster is a betrayal. This seems bizarre. The original over-representation of Scotland is not a historic commitment; it was a child of the post-war Labour government and partly intended to help deal with a flood of intricate Scottish legislation, as well as remote and sprawling constituencies. If the Edinburgh parliament works properly, there will simply be less for Scottish MPs at Westminster to do. There will certainly be no case for having more of them, in proportion, than English or Welsh Members. The real opposition to this has, in recent years, come from Labour apparatchiks who feared that fewer Scottish MPs would mean fewer Labour MPs, and help cement a pro-Tory bias. That a Labour government has cast this argument aside is a tribute both to the size of its 1997 victory and the self-confidence of New Labour in England. We view the decision with relief and pleasure. Scotland should feel the same way about the Government's proposals generally.

But before we return to the Scots, there are some fundamental questions to pose to English readers. In the months ahead, a determined effort, led by the Conservatives, will be made to whip up English antagonism and resentment about devolution. The Scots, you will be told, are having their cake and eating it. They are being ``feather-bedded'' by the English taxpayer. They are making their own laws, and laws for England at the same time. Leave to one side the strange spectacle of a party which is overtly committed to the Union engaging in rhetoric designed to increase tension between the two biggest nations of the UK. Let us, instead, turn to the substance of the complaints.

First, are the Scots to rule Scotland, and England too? As is quite right, the vast majority of MPs are English: in numerical terms, England overwhelms the rest of the UK. The only circumstances in which Scots might tip the political balance is where Scottish leftism combines with an English Labour minority to impose socialism (or similar) on Tory England. That hasn't happened. On election day 1997, English support for New Labour stood at 43.5 per cent, against 33.7 per cent who voted Tory - figures little different to the result for Britain as a whole. Is it likely to happen? Given Mr Blair's determination to keep the loyalty of Middle England, and the likely future cut in Scottish representation discussed already, the answer must be - very unlikely. This hare may run or not. But it is in our view a lame and elderly hare with a red herring tied to its back.

Second, are the Scots feather-bedded? The easy answer is: go and look at Lanarkshire. The more sophisticated one is that Scotland, with 40 per cent of the land-mass of the main British island, and more severe weather, simply costs more per citizen to keep going. It is true that Scottish education is well-resourced, though many English students travel north for just that reason. There is a disproportion in per capita public spending but it is nothing like as unfair as anti-devolutionists suggest.

Reappraising expenditure cannot be disentangled from a reassessment of inputs: what is the monetary value of having Scotland as the nuclear submarine base; of the oil and gas reserves in the North Sea and the Atlantic waters? And so on: this is the argument of divorcing partners, and not the way we want to see it develop.

We believe, in short, that English voters who value the UK, and who retain a basic belief in fairness, should - as the phrase goes - think twice before swallowing some of the anti-devolution rhetoric. If the Scots want a relatively modest degree of near-at-hand control over schools, hospitals and so on, they should only be denied it for overwhelmingly powerful reasons. If they were denied it, we believe that they would turn ever more towards a nationalist agenda. But there are no such reasons, and devolution is the best way of modernising and decentralising the ancient, but valuable, Union.

Finally, a word to Scottish readers: the real challenge will start once the Edinburgh parliament has been established. Will it become a disappointing whingeing shop? Or will it develop a popular agenda to revitalise Scottish education, clean up the cities, and conduct politics in a more open and grown-up fashion? If it manages to achieve the latter, it can yet affect Westminster in the most positive way - by being a good example. But this morning, at least, it looks very much as if that choice will be a matter for Scotland.