LEADING ARTICLE: Blair needs a brave heart

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All eyes are on Northern Ireland today. But elsewhere in the UK another fierce debate is taking place over self-rule, sovereignty and independence. Scotland is the venue, the land of William Wallace, hero of Braveheart, the recently released epic film portraying "English oppression". This week politicians have been doing modern battle over proposals that promise faster change in Edinburgh than looks likely to occur in Ulster.

The row, as we reported yesterday, centres on whether Labour will keep its pledge to let Scotland's promised parliament raise taxes. Debate on this issue has led to mudslinging at the Scottish Constitutional Convention, where Labour and its Liberal Democrat allies have been working out a blueprint for a Scottish parliament. Opponents accuse Tony Blair of planning to renege on the tax undertaking. A U-turn would, they say, make the assembly a sham, with fewer fundraising powers than the smallest English parish council.

It is not difficult to see the pressures that Mr Blair is under. Labour's long-standing promise that a Scottish parliament should be permitted to increase or cut income tax by up to three pence in the pound is a gift to the Tories. Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland and an opponent of devolution, has already labelled it the "tartan tax". Come the general election, the Tories will use the promise to support their claims that Labour remains the party of high taxation.

But Mr Blair should not break his pledge. If Scotland deserves its own parliament, then that body should have the power to raise taxes. Such a reform would also represent a significant move in the direction of breaking down the over-centralised nature of the British state. There is a more negative argument. Failure to provide tax-raising powers would in the long run undermine the Union by leaving the changes vulnerable to damaging attacks from Scottish nationalists. They would claim, with greater justification, that independence was the only way that Scotland would genuinely be able to run its own affairs. A parliament with such circumscribed powers could therefore prove to be the source of instability rather than the means of settling Scottish grievances.

There is in this debate something to be learnt from the "Irish question". This has plagued British politics for more than a century, precisely because each attempt to resolve the issue sowed the seeds for future discontent. If a Labour government is elected and tackles the Scottish question, it must not make the same mistake.

Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, should also seek ways to entrench the status of a Scottish parliament. At the moment the two parties are relying merely on a general election victory to sanction its creation. But this would not be enough to give a Scottish parliament the standing that would protect it in the future from the abolitionist inclinations of a hostile government in Westminster. That is why Mr Blair and his Lib Dem allies should promise to hold a referendum on the issue.

There is no good reason why Scotland should not enjoy as much say in its own affairs as is consistent with the Union. As the Scottish hero William Wallace might have said, Mr Blair should show a brave heart.