Opinion: View from Scotland


EDINBURGH, Scotland — The British general election scheduled for May is now in full cry with the lead the Conservatives once enjoyed now melting away, and a resurgent Labour Party coming on strong.

Last weekend the Labour party held its annual meeting in nearby Glasgow, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the usual Labour rant against the Tories, as the Conservatives are called, hoping to extend Labour’s reign well into the next decade.

But in Scotland this is not generating the excitement the two major parties would like. Since Scotland got its own devolved parliament 11 years ago, after a 300-year hiatus, the issues that really affect people’s lives, such as health and education, are decided locally in the Scottish parliament, and the Scottish parliament doesn’t have to hold elections for yet another year.

The Tories, who still have to be the odds on favorites in the coming United Kingdom elections, after 13 years of bumpy Labour rule, do not fare well in either the Scottish parliamentary elections, nor or in national elections here in Scotland. Scotland’s 10 percent of the parliamentary seats in Westminster usually go to Labour candidates, but recently the Scottish Nationalists, who would like to see an Independent Scotland, have been making inroads.

The Scottish parliament is ruled by Scottish Nationalists, albeit with a minority government, under the leadership of the quick-witted and sharp-tongued Alex Salmond. When I met him last year he told me he was hoping to increase the his numbers in the British parliament so that he could have more leverage in London. If he succeeds, and if the British election is so close that neither the Tories nor Labour has a clear majority, the Scottish Nationalists could have more influence in the British parliament than they now enjoy. Labour hopes to prevent this.

Scotland, with only about 10 percent of the British population, has always punched above its weight in the United Kingdom and in the British Empire when it covered one-fourth of the globe. Scots were always over-represented in colonial administrations and in the British army. About half of Britain’s last 20 prime ministers have either represented Scottish constituencies in the British parliament, or have been Scots themselves. The present prime minister, Gordon Brown is both — holding a Glasgow constituency and being Scottish himself.

In 2007 Scottish Nationalists captured the Scottish parliament, housed in a modern building here within sight of Queen Elizabeth’s residence, Holyrood Palace. Salmond hopes to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should be independent or not, but Labour, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Tories are all against holding one. There is little indication — despite all the nationalist rhetoric and the flying of the bonnie blue flag of Scotland — that the Scots are quite ready for a divorce.

In England, however, there is growing bitterness that the Scots get to vote in national elections, and therefore have a voice on how Englishmen are governed, but English people cannot have a say in who rules in Edinburgh.

As Britain continues to become more American — there is now a British Supreme Court based on the American model — so have British elections. The plan is to have Brown, Tory leader David Cameron and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats hold presidential-style debates between now and the May 6 election. This goes against parliamentary tradition, in which you don’t vote directly for prime minister, you vote for your local party candidate, and then whichever party wins gets to chose the prime minister.

Alex Salmond is making a row, saying that as leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), he should be included. But the powers that be are saying that there are too few SNP members in the British parliament for Salmond to make the grade. After all, if they let Salmond into the debates, they would have to admit the Welsh, Northern Irish and Welsh nationalists, as well as other small minority parties. The irony is that the Scottish Nationalist Party wants independence, while the ruling party in Belfast, the Democratic Unionists, want desperately to stay in the United Kingdom.

After having been bitter enemies for centuries, with the Scots always resisting attempts by the English to conquer them, the two thrones were joined in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth I died childless, and James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland. Each country had its own parliament, however, until 1707 when Scotland, which was broke at the time, agreed to dissolve its own parliament and become one with the Parliament in London.

That England was so obviously the senior partner rankled in the hearts of many Scots, and there were two serious but failed rebellions. But the true story is that within “the span of a single generation” the union “transformed Scotland from a third world country into a modern society and opened up a cultural and social revolution,” wrote Arthur Herman in his book “The Scottish Enlightenment — The Scots Invention of the Modern World.”

It was Tony Blair’s Labour Party that decided, after three centuries, to devolve a measure of power back to Scotland, and restore its parliament, while retaining control over defense, foreign affairs and a good deal of the public purse.

Although the Conservatives may yet win the United Kingdom-wide general election in a few week’s time, the race here in Scotland will be between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists, with the Tories and Liberal Democrats being lucky if they can pick up some crumbs from Scotland’s electoral table.