Scottish divide lets England rule

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The Independent Online
The German Question, they used to say, was that there was already an answer but nobody could agree what the question should have been. The Polish Question had an answer - yes] - but nobody could agree on which sort of Poland they were saying yes to. There is also a Scottish Question. But it is simpler: how much longer do we have to wait? And it has no answer.

Last week produced two Scottish happenings. The first was the almighty row between Labour and the Scottish National Party over Tuesday night's vote on the Maastricht Bill: the Government's defeat over the European Council of the Regions. The second was the publication of the Government's 'stock-taking' about how Scotland should be ruled: the White Paper entitled Scotland in the Union: a partnership for good.

The background facts to all this are not complicated:

1 Most Scots have for many years wanted the restoration of a Scottish parliament. Most of that majority wants self-government within the United Kingdom. Fewer, but a formidable fraction none the less, would like Scotland to be an independent state within the European Community. (A Scotsman poll last week showed 77 per cent for a parliament: 35 per cent preferring full independence and 42 per cent a sub-parliament within the United Kingdom.)

2 Scotland (as many people in England do not realise) has a 'Whitehall', although it does not have a 'Westminster': a mini- government without a corresponding legislature. The Scottish Office consists of five ministries for Scottish affairs based in Edinburgh. But for almost 15 years, its ministers have all been Tories applying Tory policies, although the Scots have voted massively and consistently against the Conservative Party. At the 1992 general election, the Tories took only about 25 per cent of the vote, which was a good score for them. Scottish public loathing for successive Tory policies is a matter of record.

Scotland, a partner in the 300- year-old Union, is therefore being governed against its will. Even by its own eccentric standards, British democracy's deficit in Scotland is a scandal. But whose fault is it that the scandal persists?

Out of 72 Scottish MPs, 61 belong to parties committed to a Scottish parliament of some kind. The British state may be ramshackle, but it is not a tyranny. If these parties were to unite in presenting a single demand for a Scottish parliament and mobilised public opinion behind them, Westminster would not long resist. But they cannot unite. The hatred between Labour and the SNP is vitriolic. And on that lake of vitriol there comfortably floats the gilded barge of Ian Lang,

Secretary of State for Scotland, governing the country with no mandate, but no serious challenge either.

On Tuesday night, the SNP voted with the Government. So did Plaid Cymru. So, almost, did the Liberal Democrats until their Welsh wing discovered that they would not get equal treatment with Plaid Cymru and persuaded their colleagues to reject the deal offered by the Tory whips. Instead, the Liberal Democrats voted with Labour, and in consequence the Government was defeated. When the result was announced, triumphant Labour MPs rushed to howl mockery at the SNP. The Scottish press did much the same: the SNP members were pilloried by the Daily Record as 'the three stooges'. Labour slammed out of the delicate talks seeking a new common Opposition platform for self-government and blamed the SNP for 'treachery'. Mr Lang permitted himself a smile.

And yet the row was absurd. Scotland did well out of everything which happened that evening. It benefited both from the victorious Labour amendment and from the concessions which the SNP forced out of Mr Lang in return for its support. The amendment means that British nominees to the Council of the Regions will be elected members of local authorities, not mere Tory placemen. The SNP's deal ensures that Scotland will have at least six seats on the Council (Britain as a whole has only 24), and that four of them will be filled from lists of elected councillors put forward by the four main Scottish parties. It is possible that Mr Lang will try to wriggle out of this, but he put it on paper and he is an upright fellow. Meanwhile, the Labour and the SNP achievements are entirely compatible, not to say complementary.

The second Scottish event is the White Paper. This is John Major's 'taking stock' of Scottish constitutional grievances, which he promised before the 1992 elections. If the Tories had lost even more seats, as everyone expected, the Government would almost certainly be offering some form of directly elected parliament. But they won three more, and their vote increased by an imperceptible 1.7 per cent, so the reforms proposed by the White Paper are almost imperceptible too: more and better meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee, transfer of a few more powers from Whitehall to the Scottish Office, some minor wheezes for making the Scottish Office more visible.

So the White Paper has been greeted with shrugs in Scotland. No parliament: no change. True, the proposals amount to nothing much. But the background assumptions and language - Westminster's 'discourse' - have changed astonishingly since the last White Papers on devolution almost 20 years ago.

The Scottish problem, firstly, is treated on its own, no longer dressed up as an aspect of British 'regional' reform. The ultimate right of Scotland to leave the Union is recognised: Mr Major repeats that 'no nation could be held irrevocably in a union against its will'. But the most extraordinary change is the insistence - in passage after passage - that the Union's function is to increase diversity between parts of the United Kingdom, to 'respect and cherish the differences', to reach 'a more concerted recognition of Scotland's status as a nation', to enhance 'Scotland's identity as a nation'.

This is bad history, but fascinating politics. Enthusiasts for the Union - the Scottish parliamentarians who voted for it in 1707 or the Whigs of the Scottish Enlightenment - intended the Union to make Scotland more like England. They thought that slow assimilation into a single 'British' identity was best for Scotland, and they perceived London as the best source of reforming ideas.

But now the Union is displayed as the instrument to make Scotland more, not less, Scottish. The rising force of national feeling evidently worries the Government, and Mr Major and Mr Lang have switched to what is really a nationalist rhetoric.

This creates two problems. The first is that decentralising bureaucracy does not quench the thirst for self-management, but sharpens it. Every office transferred to Scotland gradually 'goes native' and resents answering to London. The second problem is that 'enhancing Scottish identity' while forbidding the Scots to take collective responsibility for that identity is a crass nonsense.

Superficially, then, the White Paper is hypocritical. But between the lines it accepts premises about what is happening to Scotland which most Scots share. If the politicians of Scotland can ever get their act in order, they will encounter a Government which has left Margaret Thatcher's rigidity on this subject far behind.

It is true that terrible constitutional tangles must be unravelled at Westminster before Edinburgh sees a parliament again. But that is all part of something else: the British Question.