Leading Article: Taking stock in Scotland

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WHATEVER else can be said about the changes in the way Scotland is governed that were proposed in yesterday's White Paper, the Government cannot be accused of betraying its principles. It fought the 1992 election in unequivocal opposition to anything that would change Scotland's place in the Union of 1707, and it was rewarded with a small rise in the Conservative share of the Scottish vote. The furthest the Tories were prepared to go was to promise to 'take stock' of Scotland's position in the Union - and that is exactly what they have now done.

Many of the 50 or so commitments in the White Paper boasted of yesterday by Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, are mere shortbread. The opening of 0345 telephone lines to allow the Scots to ask civil servants questions long-distance at local rates is unlikely to go down as a great act in the Union's history; nor will the holding in Edinburgh this December of a 'Europartenariat', a jamboree for owners of small businesses organised by the European Commission.

There is some meat on the White Paper, however. By planning to transfer northwards from London responsibility for Scottish training, airports, some aspects of technology and innovation policy, and the Scottish Arts Council, the Government is showing that it wants to encourage - rather than merely tolerate - the transfer of administrative power from London to Edinburgh. By giving more work to the Scottish Grand Committee, and allowing it to perform some of that work in Edinburgh, the Government is rightly trying to make it easier for Scottish MPs to question ministers without making it harder for MPs from elsewhere to do so.

Yet the White Paper gives a confusing hint of going further. Proposals to set up a special DTI oil and gas office in Aberdeen, and outposts of the Scottish Office in other parts of Scotland, look misleadingly like the beginnings of a handover of administrative power not just from one nation to another, but downwards from a state to its regions. However incorrect it may be, that impression may turn out to hurt the Government, since John Major is probably unwilling to countenance any substantial move in that direction. In any case, he is right to resist the idea of inserting a new regional tier in British governance. The admiration often expressed across Europe for Germany's federal structure should not obscure the fact that unlike Germany, Britain has for centuries been a unitary nation-state. The Lander were once states themselves; the English regions were not.

Luckily, regionalism is not what the Scottish debate is about. Scotland is a country with a distinctive legal system, and an approach to policies ranging from schools to prisons that has its own claim to respect. If Scots truly want independence, that is their right; in consistently rejecting the SNP, however, they have indicated that they may not in fact do so. The false hopes they have been given by Labour, though, are barely more satisfactory. In its determination not to lose its valuable Scottish parliamentary seats, Labour has never faced up to the vital questions of double representation and double taxation that must be addressed before any new arrangements for Scotland can be worked out. In that sense, the Opposition offers only marginally greater hope to the advocates of home rule than does the Government.