Leading Article: Which one should she choose?

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The Independent Online
What it is to be wooed! Yesterday three ardent suitors gathered under one balcony to sing songs of love. The metaphorical object of all their affections was the Scottish electorate, invited to choose between the one with greatest passion, the one with tongue of silver; and the one that warned against all the dishonourable intentions of both of the others.

Passion is the stock in trade of the Scottish National Party, which outlined its ideas for a fully independent Scotland. The monarchy can stay and Scotland should be happy to be a member of a new Association of States of the British Isles.

Sweet reason governs the parties of the Constitutional Convention, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Scottish nationhood will be recognised in a new 129-member Scottish parliament (elected partly by proportional representation), enjoying limited powers over direct taxation and more substantial ones over domestic policies. And all done in such a way as to maintain Scotland as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Fear rules the Conservative (and Unionist, of course) approach. The Scots will be the highest taxed folk in these islands once the "tartan tax" to be raised by the new parliament comes into being, they say. Furthermore, such a parliament will almost certainly end in the break-up of the Union, as energised nationalist forces rip the devolution settlement apart. Better far, said Michael Forsyth last night, a slow path to "real" devolution, involving greater powers for local agencies.

So who should Scotland choose? There is no overwhelming practical reason why it should not become an independent nation. Is it any less credible that Scotland should go it alone than, say, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia? Not at all. But such a separation must arise from a clear-sighted appreciation of the possible costs of independence. It is doubtful whether such an appreciation exists.

This renders devolution very seductive. But we should not be blind to the real problems that a Scottish parliament may give rise to. So far there has been a failure to address the question of resolving disputes between the two parliaments, making the spectre of eventual breakdown more real. In addition, the issue of Scottish over-representation at Westminster remains to be tackled. There are doubts whether the proposals are sufficiently pluralistic to ensure that the new parliament avoids the traps of arrogance and distance that local and national government have fallen into. And surely there should be provision for the Scottish people to endorse or reject the broad form of devolution in a referendum.

What then of the Conservatives? Their strategic aim is not to win a majority of Scots to their view of the Union. It is instead to scare or cajole enough of them so as to minimise the loss of seats at the next election - a contest that could be very close. Their attack on possible higher taxes deliberately confuses the existence of a parliament with the policies that it might or might not follow.

Nevertheless their ideas (largely responses to requests from Scottish councils) for a limited devolution below national level in Scotland are sound. Real subsidiarity - taking power to its lowest practicable level - makes for better and more accessible government.

Which suggests the Scottish damsel should not accept one wooer, but instead demand to marry a composite of all their virtues - real devolution, real subsidiarity, real pluralism and real nationhood.

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