Leading Article: A new model parliament, made in Scotland

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The Independent Online
The Scottish people have spoken, and the Prime Minister and other leaders have responded with due humility, talking of history, momentous days, and the work ahead. Tony Blair rightly took the credit for trusting the people. "And the people have had the courage and the confidence to trust themselves," he said yesterday. But democracy is like a game of Chinese whispers and we have an imperfect idea of what it is the people were really trying to say, and hence what its long-term significance might be.

The immediate ambiguity is that which is symbolised by Labour's uneasy alliance with the Scottish National Party. For Donald Dewar, this was a vote to strengthen the Union between England and Scotland. For Alex Salmond, it was a vote to weaken it, and part of a process leading to independence.

Of course, as all three home-rule parties, including the Liberal Democrats, repeatedly insisted, which of these futures comes to pass is a matter for the Scottish people, and limited home rule will allow them to clarify that choice - just as the referendum enables the Scottish people, at a future date, to choose between higher, lower or unchanged taxes.

Yesterday, acknowledging the exhausted cheers of devolution campaigners, all passion nearly spent after 20 years on the road, Mr Blair described devolution as the "third way" between separatism and the status quo. No doubt Labour's policy of no change in income tax rates is the "third way" between 3p in the pound up or down. It is an option familiar to the rest of us as the "middle way".

But the middle way does not have to be a static compromise: it is part of the genius of Mr Blair's vaulting rhetoric that he can speak of historic change in the language of moderation. Thus is the centre of gravity of British politics beginning to shift.

Standing against the inevitable backdrop "New Parliament, New Scotland", the Prime Minister declared: "This is a time for change, renewal and modernity." The qualifications were almost audible: "Tempered by continuity, stability and tradition." But there is no doubt that we were witnessing the Old giving way to the New.

Thursday's decisive "yes, yes" vote was the second domino in a row which started with the general election and which stretches into the unseen distance. But there are many lines of dominos leading from this point. Some of them are false trails. One is marked "Scottish independence". In the short term, the prevailing argument in Scotland is the most convincing: that passing power from London to Edinburgh will absorb and dissipate nationalist energies. For many years, a Scottish parliament will have its work cut out as it tries to get a grip on education, health and all the unexpected issues which present themselves for debate and decision. In the long term, the national question may revive; but if it does, it is likely to be in a European context.

Another false trail is marked "English regionhood". John Prescott on Wednesday urged the Scots to vote "yes, yes" "because that will lead to greater decision-making for the English regions". No doubt they bore that in mind as they went to the polls in Oban and Pollokshields. It is only a pity that there were no exit pollsters to record that people voted "yes" because they wanted Yeovil to have a regional chamber of appointed local councillors. It is true that many regions of England will continue to feel ignored by London, and that many local politicians will continue to feel envious of Scotland and Wales. And Mr Blair offered some comfort to his deputy prime minister by saying that the referendum marked the end of the "era of big centralised government". But the truth is that directly-elected mayors for big cities would be more relevant to most people's lives than a layer of regional government.

There is a danger, however, that this government's early start on the "unfinished business" of devolution will focus debate about democratic reform on the boundaries between bits of the United Kingdom. What is more significant about the Scottish parliament in the long run is that it will be elected by a proportional system, which could lead to the renewal of democracy itself, rather than simply its structures.

The Scottish parliamentary elections will be held in 1999, and the parliament itself will open with the new century. A year later there will probably be a UK-wide referendum on the question of a proportional system for electing MPs to the House of Commons. The result of the Scottish elections, and the relationship between Labour and Liberal Democrat members when they take their places in the Edinburgh parliament, will provide a working model for the rest of the country to consider.

Given that under a proportional system Labour is unlikely to win an overall majority in the Scottish chamber, its First Minister will need Liberal Democrat support to govern. So Paddy Ashdown's flirting with the word "coalition" in this week's New Statesman was not quite as presumptuous as it seemed.

This, rather than outdated projects for Scottish independence or devolution to the English regions, is the place of Thursday's vote in Britain's democratic history. It is a story of resumed progress after 18 years of arrested development, but the "re-constitution" of the United Kingdom is not simply going to continue where Labour left off in 1979. We are now setting off in a much more interesting and challenging direction.