The first clear sigh that the cause of greater self-government for Scotland is still alive has come, ironically, from an English politician. David Owen, foreign secretary in the last Labour government, has proposed an ingenious constitutional scheme combining limited self-government for the Scots with a new second chamber to replace the House of Lords.
Those who favor Scottish "devolution" (increased independence) believe Dr. Owen, a contender in the coming Labour Party leadership struggle, may have hit on a formula that will pump fresh life into a cause that appeared to have collapsed 18 months ago. In a March 1979 Scottish referendum, the margin of "yes" votes for devolution was so slim that Parliament was not persuaded to approve creation of a separate Scottish assembly.
Dr. Owen's plan, unveiled at a political meeting in Scotland, calls for the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement by a mainly elective body representing national and regional interests throughout Britain.
When the new second chamber was not meeting at Westminster to review central government affairs, its constituent parts would be heading off to various parts of the country to deal with local problems.
Dr. Owen suggests the Scottish part should be a legislative assembly holding sessions in Edinburgh. A Welsh component of the second chamber, plus up to 10 english regional assemblies, would meet locally as well. In this way devolution demands could be satisfied and the outmoded Lords replaced by a genuinely representative second chamber.
Dr. Owen's ideas are stirring debate for two reasons. It is widely recognized that sooner or later a way must be found to give Scots, Welsh, and the English regions a bigger say in the running of their own affairs. This especially so in Scotland where the Scottish National Party (SNP) is showing signs of making a comeback.
Even more urgent, is the future of the House of Lords. The Labour Party's national Executive Committee has decided that the ancient second chamber should be abolished.
But to abolish the Lords without putting anything in its place would leave lawmaking in the hands of the House of Commons alone, a body often caught up in passionate partisan politics. The Lords are usually more restrained in their careful scrutiny of legislation.
Here Owen's plan looks promising. Members of the chamber could speak for regional interests, and, being elected, would carry more weight than unelected peers. Owen proposes that British members of the European Parliament should have seats in the chamber, too, broadening further its capacity for ensuring that new laws were properly considered before being passed.
SNP politicians are still studying the Owen plan, but in general they appear to regard it as a sensible, constructive proposal.