Within London liberal opinion lurks a deeply illiberal darkness

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The Independent Online
Once upon a time, there was a cave called Britain. It was a long, rambling cave whose opening faced south. There, in the comfortable sunlight, sat the wise elders of the tribe. They enjoyed a wide view of the world, which allowed them to settle disputes, to devise new ways of chipping flint tools and to reward themselves with the best cuts of venison brought in by the hunters.

Behind them, in a darkness which grew steadily denser towards the northern recesses of the cave, lived the families of the unenlightened. Listening to their gnawing and bickering, the elders reminded themselves that these were benighted creatures; good-hearted in their primitive way but unable to see clearly the difference between right and wrong. Left to their own devices, they would resort to murder and incest.

Britain can still, even now, resemble that cave. Enlightenment is held to start at the centre (although London is physically on the southern periphery), and then to reach the provinces by diffusion. This is the traditional ruling-class view of culture - the Arts Council perspective. But the view is even more deeply rooted when it comes to what is still sometimes called "civilised behaviour" or just "civilisation": the mixture of self-restraint, openness to the new and tolerance of "the other" which is held to define the liberal mind. These are assumed to be metropolitan values. They are not safe in the hands of provincials.

I was reminded of the cave image when I read about the row on abortion, which last week split the Cabinet committee on devolution. It was part of a wider disagreement, which is about the British dogma of sovereignty and authority. But the abortion dispute reached beyond politics into deep, irrational regions of prejudice which still inhibit this country's democratic self-confidence.

Put crudely, there is fear that a Scottish parliament might tamper with the 1967 Abortion Act and introduce more restrictive legislation. This is not a new anxiety. It emerged during the devolution debates of the 1970s. The 1978 Scotland Act put abortion "within the powers of the Scottish Executive but not within the legislative competence of the Assembly". In other words, the Scots could administer the 1967 Abortion Act in Scotland, but the Assembly would have no power to change it.

Last week, Cabinet leaks alleged that Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, argued hotly but unsuccessfully that this fear of "illiberal" changes to the law was pure fantasy. If so, he was absolutely right. The facts, now and in recent history, suggest the opposite.

Scotland has for many years run a policy on abortion that is more open and less restrictive than practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. And the evidence indicates that it will continue to do so.

Until recently, there was a divergence between Scots and English law on abortion. It was not until 1990 that an upper limit - no termination beyond 24 weeks, except in special circumstances - was introduced into Scotland. But this made no real change: the number of "late" abortions in Scotland has remained much the same. The difference is not about law but about "ethos" - the basic approach.

This is a rather Victorian tale of mighty contendings between professors. In the 1940s and 1950s, Professor (Sir) Dugald Baird of Aberdeen began to introduce a "social" approach to perinatal medicine which aimed at the welfare of the family as a whole. His knowledge of the poor fishing communities of the north-east coast led him to carry out abortions for essentially social reasons, on women who already had more children than they could cope with. He was concerned to save families and to preserve the lives of mothers (who would otherwise have sought illegal backstreet abortion) and of infants. One result of his work, and of that of his missionary disciples who spread the Baird doctrine to Dundee and Edinburgh, was to halve the number of infant deaths in the first year of life.

Baird did not share the view that the life of the foetus mattered more than the life of the mother. On the other hand, he did not advocate individualistic "abortion on demand", and he was not readily sympathetic to requests for termination from young unmarried women.

But his "social" approach was opposed by another great physician, Professor Ian Donald of Glasgow, the introducer of ultrasound scanning into NHS practice. Prof Donald taught his West of Scotland students that termination could essentially only be justified if it was intended to save a woman's life. The traces of this controversy survive, in a discernible East-West divide in hospital attitudes to abortion. But Baird's influence remains dominant. As one of his students said to me: "The Scottish NHS provides a nearly ideal abortion service under present conditions - unlike England and Wales."

Given this background, the panic in "London liberal opinion" is mystifying. It is true that the Catholic church (claiming the membership of nearly 16 per cent of the Scottish population) has been more combative and "political" in its battle against abortion than the Catholic episcopate in England. But in a country where anti-Catholic prejudice is not yet a thing of the past, there is a ceiling over the political influence of the hierarchy. Efforts to put Catholic pressure on Scottish politicians - especially over abortion - have never been successful.

During the run-up to the last election, Cardinal Winning - the primate - loudly assailed Tony Blair for his allegedly tolerant attitude to abortion. But the electors appear to have taken no notice whatever. Now, when it is rumoured that Mr Blair himself decided that abortion should be taken out of the remit of a Scottish parliament, the Catholic church has swung round and protested that this supreme moral issue should be decided in Scotland. This is ineffectual stuff.

And yet this fear of "dark provincial intolerance" lives on. In the 1970s, Scottish universities were to be kept out of the Assembly's control - an insult that will not be repeated this time. But the unofficial list of 40 "retained subjects" (matters that Edinburgh will not be allowed to decide) is deeply depressing. Some make sense, like foreign policy and defence; devolution is not independence. But why should the Scots be forbidden to make their own laws on human rights, animal quarantine, control of drugs, environmental protection, genetic research, data protection or - in a land reaching into sub-Arctic winter darkness - the time of day?

New Labour is supposed to favour competition. Let's leave economics out of this (though free marketeers would love Scotland to be able to vary rates of credit and interest, employment regulations, even currency). What is so terrifying about political and social competition within the UK, allowing citizens to choose between good laws here and bad laws there? Would the world come to an end if Scotland legalised cannabis or decided that six o'clock in London was five o'clock in Lerwick?

I am a fan of "bourgeois liberalism". Roy Jenkins and his permissive reforms made Britain a better place to live in. But bourgeois liberals are haunted by fear that there's a contradiction between tolerance and democracy. Essex Man and Woman hanker to bring back the gallows, while the Scots, let off the leash, will start shooting homosexuals and throwing Pakistanis off the Forth Bridge.

Liberty is sometimes too precious to be left to the people. That is the hidden nightmare of decent, "civilised" metropolitan souls who have done so much to improve the world. But the real point about devolution - and democracy - is this: it dares to let people make their own mistakes.