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Taking a Fling at Looser Ties to England

Referendum Thursday will decide if Scotland gets a legislature, and whether it can levy taxes.

Michel MacDonald is a Braveheart in reverse.

A student at the Charleston Academy, he insists that if he had a vote in Thursday's referendum on a separate parliament for Scotland he would "definitely vote no" because "there is little point in it."

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The nationalist passion that drove William Wallace (Mel Gibson in the 1995 film version) to give the English forces a bloody nose at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 doesn't stir in 16-year-old Michael. But his is a lone voice. His 10 classmates say that if they were 18 and voting, they would all say yes to having a Scottish parliament.

These youngsters from families in and around Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands, all speak in rich burrs and insist they "feel Scottish." But even when they complain about the Parliament in London that has ruled their nation for the last 290 years, something seems to be missing.

That something is any sign of passionate commitment to a separate Scottish nation.

Measuring public opinion in this beautiful region of lochs, mountains, forests, and farms well stocked with cattle and sheep, has been difficult. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Aug. 31, meant that campaigning in the referendum was put on hold until last Sunday, after the funeral.

Scots will have a mere 100 hours to listen to the arguments and decide whether they want their own legislature. The Highlands are reckoned to be a marginal area, with many voters either hostile or indifferent to the idea of a Scottish parliament.

The pupils of Charleston Academy turned out to be franker in their views than many adults. Half-a-dozen farmers around Inverness, asked how they planned to vote and whether they saw themselves as Scottish patriots, took refuge in near-total reticence. One, in whose fields the hay was already rolled into neat bundles, said, "Sorry, I have no time. I must bring in the harvest."

Their reluctance may have had something to do with the mourning for Diana. More likely, it was because devolution, the term used to describe shifting some political power from London to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, does not light flames in Highlanders' hearts.

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'I feel Scottish, and I'm proud of it'

That it fails to do so at first seems odd. Scotland has obeyed laws passed by the Parliament in London ever since the 1707 Act of Union with England. But its people have never been entirely happy with the arrangement.

Scotland maintains legal and educational systems different from those of its southern neighbor. The culture of this nation of 5.1 million people, with its skirling bagpipes and brightly patterned tartans, and where Gaelic is still spoken by a small minority, marks Scots out as very different from the understated English.

"I definitely feel Scottish, and I'm proud of it," says Sarah-Jane Summers, a Gaelic-language student. "I'll be voting to have our own parliament because it's high time we ran our own lives."

Ms. Summers was playing a fiddle on a street corner "to help pay for my university fees." Her friend Kirsten Alistaff, who had been accompanying her on the flute, said she would be voting yes also because "it isn't right that a Parliament 400 miles away decides how much I get in grants to pay for my education." But pressed to say whether they thought Scotland should seek total independence from England, neither considered it desirable.

Money, in fact, is at the root of the devolution debate, and the issue cuts two ways.

A legislature 'would be a disaster'

Bill Law, production director of Hector Russell, a company that claims to be the world's biggest supplier of kilts, says that having a Scottish parliament "would be a disaster" because it "would cost millions and end up being a talking shop."

Standing in a workroom where a dozen women were busily hand-stitching kilts, and clad in a kilt himself, Mr. Law declares: "I am going to vote no. A parliament in Edinburgh would make life more expensive, and everybody except the politicians would be worse off."

Hamish Davidson also frowns on the idea of a Scottish parliament with power to raise taxes because it would "cause unnecessary problems and [raise] my costs" of doing business. Mr. Davidson, who runs an art gallery near Glasgow, describes himself as a "heavy sports" enthusiast and spends a good part of his time at Highland Games gatherings.

On the shore of Loch Ness, resting between hurling a hammer long distances and tossing the caber (a tall tree trunk), he says: "It's really all beside the point.

"The politicians like the idea of having their own parliament, because if they get elected they will earn 80,000 [$130,000] a year. I would be paying their salaries."

But on the other side of the city, Douglas McHugh, the manager of a computer shop, has different ideas.

"Last year the London parliament spent just one hour debating Scotland's health problems," he complains. "Our own legislature would mean we could give such matters the attention they deserve."

The issue of money may distort the outcome of the referendum. Voters will be asked two questions: whether they want a parliament, and whether it should have power to raise taxes in addition to those imposed by London. Pro-devolutionists want a yes-yes result.

Polls suggest a 'no' vote on taxation

Opinion polls suggest that the first question will produce an enthusiastic yes, but that the other may cause many Scots to vote no.

"A parliament without tax-raising powers would be like a jet plane without an engine," says a worker for Scotland Forward, a group in Inverness asking the public to vote yes-yes.

It certainly would. But in the Highlands, at least, if there is a burning desire on the part of pro-devolutionists to put their money where their mouth is, it is being cleverly disguised.

Poll Tests Scots' Desire to Separate

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