Who should own the voice of Scotland?

An adventurous proprietor for the Scotsman could make the paper a catalyst for a real parliament
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Something rare is happening in Scotland. Not naked, rollerskating Bavarians yodelling Verdi and similar stuff commonplace in Edinburgh at festival time. No, what is interesting is the ownership race for Scotland's national newspaper, coming at a time of great political sensitivity. Press barons and editors like to see themselves as figures of huge political importance; for once, in Scotland, the perception might be right.

Let's start with the newspaper and work backwards to the country. If there is a Scottish establishment, then the Scotsman, founded in 1817, is undoubtedly part of it. Along with the General Assembly of the Kirk, the Bank of Scotland, the financial institutions of Charlotte Square, the New Club and the Faculty of Advocates, it is a bastion of Edinburgh's middle-class self-respect.

I called it Scotland's national newspaper, and that's how it thinks of itself, but it has that title above all because it is the Edinburgh morning paper. Scotland is more like Germany than England in its press culture, in that it has city-based papers - the Press and Journal in Aberdeen (also for sale), the Courier in Dundee, the Herald in Glasgow - rather than a single national publishing centre. Edinburgh is the capital; the profitable Scotsman is the capital's paper; hence its claim to being the national voice, too.

Like Edinburgh itself, the Scotsman is self-interested in Scottish Home Rule. In 1968 it published a pamphlet arguing that "government of the people, by and for the people should to the largest possible extent be where the people are, so that they can keep an eye on it ...'' The Scotsman and its stablemate Scotland on Sunday, being only a short walk from the site of the proposed Parliament, are rather well placed for eye-keeping.

Since then the paper has been rather more consistent in its Home Rulery than most political parties, though it has never gone Scottish Nationalist. In recent years it has organised key debates between the parties, heavily covered the Scottish Convention and was implicated in the Home Rule hype which came to nothing at the last general election. It has been, in short, a player.

This is why most of the quietly prepared bidding plans for the Scotsman arouse such anxiety in the largely anti-Tory and pro-Home Rule Scottish political establishment. On the one hand there are a range of England- based buyers eyeing it up - those who've pondered the idea include the Mirror Group, which part-owns the Independent; Northcliffe Newspapers; and Midland Independent Newspapers. On the other hand are traditional Scottish rivals, notably the Herald in Glasgow, and a consortium of right- wing Scottish businessmen fronted by Professor Ross Harper, a former chairman of the Scottish Tories.

You can see the problem. Would it be better, for the pro-Home Rule case, for the Scotsman to fall into English hands, or fall to a rival which might devour it, or go to anti-Home Rule Scottish Tories, who have complained for years about the hostility of the Scottish press to the Conservative cause? Politics being a low game, the Scottish Nationalist and Scottish Labour people I've talked to would (privately) much rather see English owners than Scottish Tory ones.

One way or another, the business and journalistic opportunity cannot be disentangled from the political opportunity. The Scottish debate has been, over the past year or so, distinctly surreal. There is a general, though still suspicious, assumption that Labour will probably win the election and then quickly implement its promised Scottish Parliament.

Yet at the same time there has been a remarkable silence about what the Parliament would then do; or should do; or could do. It has been discussed as a quasi-abstract emblem of quasi-nationhood, interesting in itself, rather than as a means of doing other things. Which, when you think about it, is a little odd.

Not that there is a lack of problems for such a parliament to get to grips with. Scotland still has abominable health and housing problems. Scottish law is in a poor state, suffering from years of being developed as an afterthought or addendum to mainly English legislation. Scottish education, once a European byword, is a shadow of its former self; the Scottish universities, with a distinctive tradition going back to medieval times, have been partly homogenised and Anglicised.

A century on from the founding of the Crofters Commission, this is still a country where small Highland communities are bought and sold; the Labour frontbencher Brian Wilson is among those now asking whether the kind of land reforms considered just a tad too radical in the 1880s are thinkable in the 1990s.

Then there are the local Scottish industries, from the investment managers and life companies of Edinburgh to the tweed mills of the Borders, whisky, fish farming and the remaining engineering in the West. Economists such as Michael Porter have argued convincingly that competitive advantage comes where there is intense local specialisation and education. It's at least worth discussing whether a Scotland-based administration could support and help modernise local sources of wealth.

This is a debate one would expect to be raging but which (admittedly from 400 miles away) seems barely to be smouldering. Perhaps that isn't so surprising. The Conservatives are against the whole thing; the SNP bases its appeal on the belief that anything short of independence isn't going to work.

And Labour, thus far, has been oddly timid in trying to rouse discussion and enthusiasm for its pet project. Perhaps it is just the well-ingrained instinct of caution; but for the Opposition to allow the debate about Home Rule to subside into a squabble over maximum tax rates, the precise voting system and the salaries of MSPs would be suicidal.

In these circumstances, the dream of every editor - to plunge in and get the country talking - is open to both the Scotsman and its Scottish rivals. There is available a leadership role that newspapers crave but rarely practise.

For the Scotsman, there is also the downer-to-earth motive of turning itself into a sort of Irish Times of Scotland, the natural repository of the advertising and other financial spin-offs of Dail Caledonia. A paper on the doorstep of a new Parliament, where public-sector jobs are multiplying, gains more than simply a good story.

It would, of course, be a gamble. It is very hard to make money in newspapers these days; Scotland isn't immune from the price war, raids by English- based papers and the soaring cost of newsprint. This is a very tough market - which is why the International Thomson Organisation, the current owner, is trying to get out of it.

Fortune favours the brave both in business and in politics; and in a living democracy, everything connects. Cost-cutting, drearily provincial and pessimistic Scottish newspapers would fit well with a feeble, bickering and largely purposeless Assembly. They could bore one another to death. But a lively, perky Scotsman, trying to make waves under an owner with a gambling streak, would be a powerful political provocation. It would be something worth having, a catalyst for a real Parliament that did real things for real people. Rarely has a choice been starker.