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Looser British ties boost English identity

Scots and Welsh vote for their own parliaments May 6. Will England be

Here on the Scottish side of the border with England, there are signs that the United Kingdom may one day slide into disunity.

As Scots prepare to vote May 6 to elect their own parliament - the first since the 1707 Act of Union - plenty of them attending a folk festival in this busy market town were able to imagine Scotland breaking away from England. Wales, which since the 1500s has also been part of Great Britain, is holding a similar vote for a far less powerful legislative assembly.

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More surprisingly, English people who had traveled north to enjoy Celtic dancing and music spoke almost casually about Scotland eventually becoming fully independent and running its own show.

"They should have their own parliament if they want it," says a farmer from Leeds, Yorkshire. "Mind you," he adds pointedly, "we would want our own parliament too."

Asked whether he meant the current House of Commons and House of Lords, which make up the British Parliament in London, the farmer is adamant: "No, an English parliament representing English interests." His two male companions vigorously nod assent.

These radical thoughts, although a long way from reflecting majority thinking, are something new on the British scene.

WHEN in 1997 the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his plans for Scotland to have a separate parliament and for Wales to have its own assembly, he made no such offer to England. But by advocating decentralized government, he may have triggered a more far-reaching process.

On the fringe of the folk festival a barbecue chef frying chicken patties may be close to catching the drift of the new British mood.

"London doesn't understand what Scotland needs," he says. "It is too far away. I think Scotland is heading for independence. And if it achieves it, it stands to reason that the nations of the United Kingdom will drift apart."

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That is far from Prime Minister Blair's intention.

Stumping for his Labour Party in the Scottish election campaign, Blair has argued that the UK, officially made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, will be strengthened by the process he calls "devolution."

In this region, however, there seems to be a palpable sentiment that, like it or not, Blair has allowed a political genie to escape from the UK bottle.

An English woman with two teenage sons watching a display of Scottish Highland dancing had views similar to those of the farmer, that perhaps it is time for the English to assert their own identity.

"If Scotland achieves independence - and I think it will - I'm sure I'll begin to ask, 'Why not England, too?' " she says.

Asked whether they agree, the boys back their mother's view. The elder says: "It stands to reason that we'll feel more English if the United Kingdom starts to fall apart."

There is no prospect of the Scots breaking loose at short notice. The Labour Party, wedded to the moderate idea of devolution within the UK, is widely expected to lead Scotland's first government in three centuries.

BUT the Scottish National Party, which does want independence, is likely to be the second-largest party in the new parliament.

As the official opposition, it can realistically hope to one day achieve a majority.

Lindsay Patterson, a social scientist at Edinburgh University, thinks it may take 10 to 15 years for independence to become a top agenda item, but says, "When it does, the future of what today we call the United Kingdom may be very much open to doubt."

Perhaps the Yorkshire farmer at the folk festival hit the mark when he said: "If the Scots go it alone, there may be no other choice for us British than to take the same road.

"Mind you," he adds, "I doubt whether passports will be needed for crossing the border."

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