The spirit of devolution is alive and marching

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The Independent Online
AS THE sea of Scottish saltires waved in the cold sunlight, one of the leaders of the 25,000 or so Home-Rulers marching through Edinburgh at the weekend had a short, visionary flash. Perhaps he should just turn left, head for the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the European summit was in progress and 'finish the whole thing now'. Wisely, no doubt, he decided it was a moment of madness.

Scottish Home Rule was the issue that was supposed to have been put to sleep by the general election. The Edinburgh parliament that has been campaigned for, on and off, for more than a century, was as far away as ever. Mr Major had pledged himself an uncompromising Unionist. He won (though not, of course, in Scotland). So that was that.

Saturday's march reminded everyone that self-government is wanted as much as ever. Although the turn-out surprised almost everybody, from the Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, and the Labour front bench downwards, its basic message should hardly have been a surprise. Most Scots vote for Home Rule or independence. The opinion polls may have been discredited, but for many years they have consistently shown support for the unchanged Union at a meagre 20 per cent or so. The latest polling, for the Scotsman, gives 42 per cent for independence and 35 per cent for a devolved assembly. There may be no easy solution: but, clearly, there is still a problem.

Nor is it a problem, or an issue, only for Scots. The creation of a Scottish parliament would lead, sooner or later, to a fall in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster - perhaps to none at all. That would shift the balance of power so decisively towards the Tories that the much- heralded, never-delivered, Lib-Lab alliance would become an urgent necessity. Demands for voting reform would grow.

Where would it stop? As many English politicians have already realised, from Mr Major to the constitutional reformers on the left, the Scottish question is a question for the South, too. Had a few more incoming journalists bothered to notice how the summit was seen through Scottish eyes, rather than whingeing about the paucity of free gifts from the Edinburgh authorities, its significance might have been discussed a little more widely.

But the mere fact that it is still alive ought to be of general interest. This brings us back to the weekend's march. There were several interesting things about it. First, its size - the biggest for more than a decade. Second, that it included so many stolid Labourites, clergymen, Liberal Democrats, and nobody- specials alongside the more predictable Nationalist hard core. (Although I never did discover quite why there were Belgian postal workers there, too.) Third, that the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party marched together, if uneasily, for the first time on this issue. Labour MPs and the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, old enemies all, were standing together.

We should not make too much of that. The unity lasted for about 30 seconds after the march ended. A declaration signed by all the organising bodies had demanded the recall of Scotland's parliament, which adjourned in 1707. The novelist and poet William McIlvanney suggested that Scotland's 61 opposition MPs should boycott Westminster. That was the kind of recall the Nationalists liked the sound of and the SNP cheekily decided to write to Labour's John Smith proposing a meeting to discuss it. Mr Smith, I can reveal, has other plans for the next five years than withdrawing to Edinburgh. So Labour told the SNP to stop playing games and join it and the Liberal Democrats inside the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The SNP thinks that body has been useless. Old insults were thrown again.

But even as the politicians seek the security and warmth of their traditional battles, they may remember the eruption of Home-Rulery in Edinburgh. Marches solve nothing. But this one may have altered the mood enough to provoke new political alliances and a more urgent search for dialogue. The Scottish TUC, which is fervently pro-Home Rule, to the extent that it has been called 'the political wing of the Labour Party in Scotland', is keen to promote this. It was interesting to note that some of the Labour MPs who had predicted that the march would be a flop when they were in the Commons last week turned up, surrounded by patriotic constituents, on Saturday. Generally, MPs like to address marches, to make the people hear. This time, though, the message was going the other way.

Neither Mr Major nor Mr Lang will listen for a second to the Home Rule chorus. The Scottish Secretary and the Prime Minister will present their proposed refinements to Unionist government in the new year. Although Mr Lang has tried hard to find a new kind of Unionist-Scottish patriotic language, these refinements will fall far short of self-government.

And what will happen then, you ask? Nothing much. Speeches. Pamphlets. More marches, which like most 'demos' in Britain tend to demonstrate, above all, the stolidity and indifference of the target of their wrath. Scotland is a peaceable and law-abiding country, and light years away from the day when such a march would turn left and head for the police surrounding the summit itself. As in the 1979 referendum campaign, Unionists are accustomed to note the lack of broken glass, and relax.

But there is something wrong here. A healthy democracy notices dissent; and the larger and more eloquent the protest, the more it should be noticed, and argued about. A long time ago, when introducing a Scottish Home Rule bill in 1914, a Liberal MP from the Highlands rebuked Tory Unionists who used the no-broken- glass argument. His party had won 80 per cent of the seats in Scotland on a self-government platform, having argued by every democratic means for it, 'by platform, press and pamphlet'. A political demand is none the less sincere or ardent if it is quietly expressed. It was a noble and decent argument then. It is so now.