The Scotsman is to middle-class Labour in Scotland what The Sun has been to blue-collar southern Toryism. It has been more sophisticated, more veiled, but scarcely less dependable. Its gloriously turreted and gold- leafed Edinburgh offices have been the bastion, the unstormable citadel, of leftish Scottish home rule. (I know. I carried a spear there once.) So this questioning of the orthodoxy from deep inside the belly of the temple is, at the very least, an occasion for pursed lips and muttered tsks.
The Scotsman's rudery comes at an interesting moment. It says it requires an answer, in the name of honesty and fair play, to the ''West Lothian Question'' - in other words, once power has been devolved to a Scottish or Welsh assembly, why should the English tolerate Celtic involvement in their domestic affairs?
The Question, almost Arthurian in its significance, was named after the West Lothian MP, Tam Dalyell, who asked it persistently in the House of Commons in the late Seventies. But it is the oldest Unionist question of all, which came first from people like the Tory leader Arthur Balfour, who put it thus in 1914: ''Are you going to leave the whole of these 72 Scottish MPs here to manage English education ... it is an irresponsible scheme!"
The Question 's value, from Balfour to Dalyell to John Major, has been that it seemed to put a Unionist block on self-government inside the UK for the Scots or Welsh. (The Irish have always been treated differently, largely because of their enthusiasm for sniping and high explosives.)
Why? Because if the Celts do retire from English business, then the whole jalopy crashes. Westminster would then be likely, at some stage, to find itself trying to support two different administrations at the same time. There would be the Scottish-backed, probably Labour, government with a majority for European affairs, defence, fiscal policy and so on. Then there would be the English, probably Tory, administration which controls health, education and much else south of the border.
This administrative schizophrenia would not last long. You cannot have two cabinets, two leaders. One would have to dominate. Though the Liberal Democrats have always advocated a federal Britain, with an English Assembly to match Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, that seems a Utopian answer. So, if the Question was asked, and then logically answered, it has always been assumed that the UK would creak, groan and then split apart.
Which is, of course, unthinkable. Unionists have therefore used the innocent- seeming Question as a subtle threat. Decoded, it reads: ''You know Scottish or Welsh devolution would annoy the English, who are numerous, rich and powerful. So you must back off.''
End of home rule/Jocks back in their box? Not necessarily. There are other answers. It is not clear that the English would in fact be outraged by Scottish self-government, so long as the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster was cut, to reduce their influence.
David Steel argues, in addition, that an English grand committee should be established at Westminster to deal with English-only matters, just like the similar Scottish and Welsh committees. For those who are keen on compromise, and retaining the Union, there are compromises readily available.
By contrast, demanding a logical answer to the Question will tend to drive the debate to extremes. Although the Question was framed to protect the Union, it could equally well be used as a jemmy to force it apart. The Scotsman's recent editorial begins, for instance, with a passionate plea for home rule: ''We contend that the cause is just, the demand manifest, and the case beyond challenge. Democracy withers when a nation with its own legal system is denied the right to make its own laws.''
If it thinks that, and understands the dangers of the Question, then the paper is well down the path to Scottish independence. Is that what it really wants? Or is this, as appalled Labour devolutionists think, a hurdle which is meant to be too high for Tony Blair to jump - and therefore a way of justifying an anti-devolution conclusion? Everyone knows how dependent even New Labour may be on Scottish votes.
Is The Scotsman, therefore, covertly demanding a choice between the Tories and the SNP? That suspicion is strengthened by the fact that The Scotsman is now owned by the Barclay twins, strong supporters of Margaret Thatcher; and has, in Andrew Neil, an editor-in-chief who is both a Unionist and a paid-up member of the radical right.
By this reckoning, the change of direction may not be quite the agonising kidney-punch which The Sun inflicted on the Prime Minister; but it is a very painful kick up the Scottish leftish establishment's fundamental principle from a once dependable ally.
So - in short - ouch!
How should reformers respond? They certainly shouldn't shy from the Question because of party timidity or because they suspect the motives of the people who ask it. Anyway, there are bolder and more principled answers to give.
If Labour embraced voting reform, then Scotland would be a little more Tory and England would be rather more Labour and Lib Dem. The differences between the historic nations of Britain, which are greatly exaggerated by the first-past-the-post system, would be smoothed over. We would become a Union of political minds, not simply of taxpayers. The UK would become more ideologically similar, and therefore stronger, not weaker. And, of course, it would matter far less to Labour whether it had Scottish MPs to prop it up at Westminster or not.
So I think The Scotsman has done the whole country a service: its fundamental case is that splinters and broken half-paragraphs of reform may not be enough. Scottish home rule without voting reform would leave the Union vulnerable to a surging back of the radical right in England. So if Blair is driven to deliver an Edinburgh parliament, as he has promised to, he cannot flinch back. He will have to go further. Good: like a scavenged dyke, stone by stone, our whole old settlement is slowly slipping over.Reuse content