Pageantry fit for a new polity

Yesterday, Scotland reaffirmed its sense of nationhood in terms that no party can ignore
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Political pageantry which has been hallowed by time - or the BBC - is something we unhesitatingly accept: Queen's Speeches, Black Rods, Prime Minister's Questions all are part of our culture. But new pageantry still has the power to shock, and what happened in Scotland yesterday was, or ought to have been, genuinely shocking for anyone brought up in the Westminster way. This was politics, John, but not as we know it.

On the surface it was hardly even a story. The Scottish Constitutional Convention - which embraces Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish trade unions and local authorities and many smaller bodies - presented its final proposals for the shape and nature of a post-election Scottish parliament. However radical by Westminster standards, these are now well known: the use of a proportional voting system; the commitment by the two main parties there to try for an equal number of male and female MSPs; the new and stronger committee system; the requirement for ministers to be voted into office by the parliament. As familiar were the omissions: nothing about the future number of Scottish MPs at Westminster or their powers; too little about funding; and the ambiguous status of the Scottish Secretary in the British Cabinet. Such fudges may be mildly disreputable but they are scarcely shocking.

What was striking was the imagery and rhetoric of a new polity being born. The nationalist tide in Scotland today carries far more with it than just the Scottish National Party. Here in Edinburgh were moderate kirk ministers and politicians of avowedly unionist parties gathered under saltires and Scottish banners, listening to speeches of a passionately leftist-patriotic kind which simply would not be made, let alone taken seriously in London.

Trying to mint a sense of occasion for something new is a difficult and revealing business. Not that everything was new yesterday - far from it. The event took place in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. It was here in 1949 that the Scottish Covenant was declared and signed by church ministers, councillors, businessmen and trade unionists. It, too, called for a single-chamber Scottish parliament with similar powers to the one proposed yesterday. Then, the Duke of Montrose, who signed first, was followed by sober-suited gents and, within a week, by 50,000 Scots.

The imagery then was conventional, romantic stuff, appealing to the Conservative- minded historian. This week, the messages were bewilderingly different. There were Gaelic songs. There were provocations from clerics, including a Congregationalist minister who declared the Scots to be "a people of the Book" in historic opposition to a "foreign [English] monetarist culture which has driven out God in favour of Mammon". There was the alternative Scottish anthem, "Freedom come all ye", robustly attacking Scotland's imperialist history. People were close to tears as they sang it.

There was an all-woman, boiler-suited drumming band performing under the gobsmacked stone gaze of John Knox - and uncomfortable-looking rows of Scottish Labour MPs. It was as if someone had sat down and lined up all the assumptions of Westminster life and then gone out of their way to mock every one.

Am I making too much of what was, in the end, a public relations exercise? No, I think not, because of the likelihood that Scotland will get a parliament designed, or at least heavily influenced, by the people who designed yesterday's launch. They were saying something it behoves the rest of us to hear. That challenge is now fully acknowledged by the Major administration itself, which is why Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, has launched his whirlwind campaign of less radical change to stop Home Rule in its tracks. The first, perverse effect was to concentrate media attention on the Scottish Convention's proposals yesterday. But at least battle is joined and Scotland has a choice of two fundamentally different manifestos for change.

The Forsyth plan is only the latest instalment of a long Tory and unionist struggle to square Scottish patriotism with British nationalism. It was, after all, a Tory premier, Lord Salisbury, who in 1885 created the post of Secretary of State for Scotland, though mocking the job's significance when awarding it to another peer as "a matter where the effulgence of two Dukedoms and the best salmon river in Scotland will go a long way".

The Conservatives' historic dilemma has been how to make the Scots feel more connected and loyal to the British state without transferring significant political power away from Westminster. All the way through, affection without autonomy has been the aim. The Forsyth plans do not go as far as the devolution proposals approved by Edward Heath and designed by the late Lord Home 25 years ago (though never enacted). But they are squarely in line with the thinking of Conservative unionists from Lord Salisbury onwards.

What they offer is the near-at-hand spectacle of government accountability, pushed as far as uncompromising unionism can go. John Major was genuinely struck recently by how far away London politics seemed in Scotland. Sending Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine to answer MPs' questions in Hamilton, Dundee or Stirling is meant to close that gap of geography and imagination.

But using the Scottish Grand Committee to question ministers and argue over the detail of some legislation would not permit Scottish MPs by themselves to determine any important matter. The key phrase in Mr Forsyth's Commons statement on Wednesday was that Scottish Bills might be taken by the Committee in Scotland "whenever it makes sense to do so". This means, during Conservative rule, only in very limited cases. Examples given by the Government include a Bill on the licensing of raves. There will also be a procedure to allow Scottish MPs to gather evidence in Scotland on proposed legislation - the example given this time being the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. Revolutionary nationalism it ain't.

The changes were ridiculed by opposition parties: "a travelling circus"; "a series of Away Day returns for government ministers". In fact, they are remarkably similar to plans produced by Liberal and Labour MPs in the Sixties and Seventies. As Mr Forsyth explained, they would allow the Scottish Grand Committee to act as a mini-parliament in many respects, if Labour won at Westminster and allowed it to do so. Some 10 or 15 years ago, such proposals would have attracted the interest and perhaps the enthusiasm of many opposition MPs and groups.

But that time, I believe, has passed. Two of those who produced Forsyth- style plans a generation ago were the former Labour MP Harry Ewing and the young Liberal activist David Steel. The joint chairs of yesterday's launch in Edinburgh were Lord Ewing and Sir David. These days, they are both signed up to a project that is radical and quasi-nationalist in its tone and emotional origin, if not in its principles.

If the Conservatives manage to stop this, it will not be because of constitutional tinkering but because they have succeeded in frightening the Scots sufficiently with the thought of the "Tartan Tax" that an Edinburgh parliament might levy in the cause of social reform. Oddly, if we are about to witness a battle between a leftist Scottish God and Old Tory Mammon, between the People of the Book and the People of the Pocket-Book, both sides will probably be satisfied and even eager to fight on those terms.

I, for one, have little doubt of the outcome. Scotland feels like a country that has grown apart from England in recent years, in its political culture as well as its pageantry. Unless the Union manages to accommodate this, the Union will not survive.