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Bagpipes Sound Freedom

Many Scots have had enough of British rule and want to shed London's control with their own parliament

COTS do not like to be mocked.

So when British Prime Minister John Major at year's end called their demands for a parliament of their own ``teenage madness,'' he got some sharp reactions in this ancient city that prides itself on being the capital of Scotland.

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There is evidence aplenty that a majority of the 5 million people who live here would like their nation to be freer of control by the Westminster Parliament, 400 miles south in London. An opinion poll last year showed that eight out of 10 Scottish voters would like their nation either to go it alone or to enjoy a measure of political ``devolution.''

At the next British general election, expected in 1996 or early 1997, two political parties will give them a chance to support either option. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is offering full independence and what its leader, Jim Sillars, calls ``the right to run our own affairs, untrammelled by English politicians.''

The opposition Labour Party says if it wins power, Scotland will be granted its own parliament, with the right to raise taxes and decide local economic priorities. On Dec. 30, Mr. Major called this ``one of the most dangerous propositions that has ever been put to the British nation,'' but George Robertson, Labour's spokesman on Scottish affairs, dismisses the prime minister's comments as ``alarmist.''

Mr. Robertson points out that his party would like Wales and England to have their own regional assemblies as well. Devolution would not break up the United Kingdom, he maintains; it would bring British people closer to the processes of government.

Scotland's position within the UK has long had more than a touch of ambiguity about it. The Scottish nation accepted rule from London back in 1707. Under the Act of Union, Scottish representatives sit in the British Parliament, but Scotland retains its own legal and educational systems and its own Presbyterian church. A burring accent and rawboned physique also mark most Scots as being different from the English.

Mr. Sillars argues that rule from London means Scots are too often at the receiving end of measures that may suit the English ``darned fine,'' but do little to help local industry and absolutely nothing to foster the Scottish sense of national identity.

The calculations of Labour leader Tony Blair are more complex. At the last general election, his party won 49 of Scotland's 72 parliamentary seats, compared with 11 for Major's Conservatives.

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By offering devolution for Scotland, Mr. Blair hopes to keep Conservative votes low and head off attempts by the SNP to erode Labour's support.

According to Robertson, Major's apparent alarm about devolution is misplaced. The prime minister, he says, argues for a loosening up of the way the European Union is run, but balks at offering a parliament to ``the proud Scots''.

On the other hand, recent history suggests that Scots' determination to run their own show may not be as rock-solid as the granite on which Edinburgh rests.

In 1979, Scottish nationalism appeared to be running like a rip-tide and the Labour government of the day staged a referendum in Scotland on the issue. But devolution was soundly defeated.

According to Sillars, Major hopes - mistakenly - that Scottish ardour will fade as the next general election nears. One Conservative member of the Westminster Parliament notes also that Scots would pay a price for going it alone.

He has calculated that devolution on either the SNP or the Labour pattern would mean tax hikes of as much as 3 percent north of the border, and Scots, he says, ``aren't exactly famous for throwing money away.''

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