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Lacking Blue-Faced Warriors, Scots Wield Votes for Self-Rule


Two hundred and fifty years since English forces crushed the last armed attempt to win Scottish independence at the Battle of Culloden, there's talk of rebellion once again in the misty Caledonian air.

There are no blue-faced Celtic hordes of the kind who followed Mel Gibson in the film "Braveheart." This time, the Scots aim to do it right, thanks to a promise wrung from the leader of Britain's Labour Party, Tony Blair.

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The "devolution" of power from London, as the Scots' push for greater autonomy is called, is key to the Labour leader's election platform. Central to that policy is the reestablishment of a Scottish parliament, abolished nearly three centuries ago when Scotland united with England.

Under pressure from powerful Scottish interests inside Labour, Mr. Blair last year unveiled an ambitious plan that would not only give Scotland a parliament, but offer regional assemblies to Wales and some English regions as well. The assemblies would have responsibility for spending about $10 billion annually; and in the case of Scotland's parliament, members also would have the power to raise taxes.

Devolution - once dismissed as a romantic Celtic illusion - now looks like a good bet for Scotland. The ruling Conservatives continue to droop in opinion polls, and seem less and less likely to win the next general elections, which must take place by the spring of next year.

In a February poll conducted by the Edinburgh-based Scotsman newspaper, 46 percent said they favored devolution, 31 percent more wanted outright independence, and only 21 percent preferred the status quo.

"Scottish devolution is no longer a question of if," said Fergus Dawson, an Edinburgh shop owner. "I've voted in every election since 1979, and not once did I vote Tory. And yet the Tories have run my country ever since. That's wrong, and I think now everyone in Scotland understands that."

Throughout Margaret Thatcher's long tenure as prime minister, and in John Major's election victory in 1992, Scotland voted heavily for Labour, as did Wales.

"The Scots and the Welsh saved Labour during the 1980s," said Peter Riddell, a political writer for The Times of London. "If the collapse of the party in England had been repeated in Scotland and Wales, Labour would have been near destruction."

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And now, like the Republican moderates who held the fort during their party's four decades in the US congressional wilderness, Labour's Celtic faithful expect Blair to lead them to the promised land.

Devolution, at least as envisaged by Blair, is no revolution. The basic blueprint calls for a 129-member parliament to meet in the old parliament building in Edinburgh. Its members would be barred from serving concurrently at the British Parliament in London. They would be chosen by proportional representation, with a built-in guarantee of numerical equality for men and women. London would retain power over defense, foreign affairs, immigration, social security, or central economic policies like interest rates.

Mr. Major's response has been to don the mantle of protector of the union, while warning that a Scottish parliament would be a "tartan tax time bomb." Labour has admitted that a Scottish parliament would most likely raise taxes, arguing that at least this time, Scottish voters will have some recourse if they disagree with the decision.

The other concern expressed by Major's party is that devolution would leave outright independence only a step away. Conservatives are particularly sensitive on this point, having recently slipped into fourth place in the Scottish opinion polls, behind Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).

Alex Salmond, the SNP's leader and one of four SNP members of the British Parliament, has denounced the devolution plan as a "constitutional mouse, which [the British Parliament at] Westminster could abolish with the stroke of a pen."

Mr. Salmond insists on full Scottish independence. Last week his party drove home the point by releasing a statement on what the future Scottish armed forces would require, down to the St. Andrew's Cross on the epaulets of the proposed 9,000 troops.

A tartan army independent of Britain is unlikely. Still, British authorities are bracing for a battle of sorts this summer when, for the first time in years, England and Scotland meet in a soccer championship match at London's Wembley Stadium.

London police who arrested English hooligans at a recent league match reported that several were in tears because they would now be banned from the June 15 showdown with the Scots, something their notorious rivals apparently have avoided. Scotland's blue-faced fans have promised to be there in force. Somewhere, William Wallace is smiling.

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