LEADING ARTICLE: Fear and Lothian in Westminster

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The Independent Online
The pundits all predict that next month's local elections in England and Wales will be awful for the Tories. They can expect to be routed. This may come as a relief to them. For last Thursday in Scotland, by contrast, they were smashed. Their 11 per cent of the vote, in one of the most important parts of the Union, reduces them to regional party status. It is the kind of performance that they used to reserve for those Welsh valley seats where even the mill-owners were members of the Communist Party.

We have been here before, of course. After the Tory defeat in the Kincardine and Deeside by-election of 1991, some journalists got excited about the prospect of a complete Tory whitewash at the next national poll. When the Scottish Conservatives did better than expected in the 1992 general election, it was painted as a victory for Toryism and the Union - proof that the separatist and devolutionist bubbles had burst.

In fact the '92 election may, with hindsight, turn out to have been like another famous election - the 1990 local vote. In that election the Tories hung on to their Westminster and Wandsworth flagships, and the message from the rest of the country about the poll tax was obscured - fatally for Mrs Thatcher. Last week's BBC affair is only the most recent signal that, far from having gone away, Scottish singularity is probably growing.

Objectively this singularity is unsurprising. Scotland really is different. North of the border there is far more respect for the state and its role in the lives of individuals. More people live in council houses - and seem to like it. The private sector is less popular. Water has never been privatised in Scotland, schools have never "opted out". The Scots are in many ways more like the Scandinavians than the English in outlook.

They are also more confident. The second Tory recession has damaged Scotland less than the rest of the Union. This time round Scottish sentiment arises from a sense of strength, rather than victimisation. This may explain the rash of appalling Scots Wha Hae movies soon to hit our screens. Rob Roy, starring the Oscar winner Jessica Lange and Braveheart, with Mel Gibson in woad and hair-extensions as the historic patriot William Wallace, both look set to strengthen separatist feelings - on both sides of the border.

And if Labour wins the next general election the onward march of this sentiment will receive its reward. Tony Blair will legislate very quickly for a Scottish parliament to sit in Edinburgh, raising a small amount of its own taxation and running its own schools, hospitals, water and so on. That is the easy bit.

The difficult bit is that the governing party, for the first time in nearly 20 years, will contain a large number of Scots MPs. Unlike their English and Welsh colleagues, whose jurisdiction in many matters would end at Hadrian's Wall, the Scots would be able to vote, speak and lobby about legislation affecting any part of the country. This anomaly is the so-called "West Lothian question".

Many of these Scottish Labour MPs would represent a political trajectory which, even if not Old Labour, might best be described as "Not-Very-New Labour". They will represent people who expect a government committed to more public spending, to the preservation of universal benefits, to strengthening local government and to an end to opt-outs and sell-offs.

But this cannot be the Blair agenda for England and Wales. New Labour will need to discover a new dispensation between individuals, groups and state. It will have to experiment with new forms of organisation and promote new public-private partnerships.

So here is the hypothetical question. In these circumstances would the large and influential cohort of Scottish government MPs allow Tony Blair to do the things that were right for England and Wales, but of which they might not approve? Would they swear a self-denying ordinance?

They certainly should. For a long time now the Scots have reminded the English and the Welsh, rightly, that there is a separate nation in the North - one with different traditions, aspirations and needs. In years to come they may do well to remember that such sensitivity cuts both ways.