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THE SCENE: St. Andrews University Scotland, during a typically damp, gray Scottish summer in 1974. Having bribed their parents into sending them to Europe by promising to study at a university, 200 American high school students were sitting in a lecture hall awaiting another lecture on British politics. Past lectures given by members of different political parties, cabinet ministries and interest groups had been nowhere near as exciting as the non academic hours the students had spent exploring Macbeth's Glamis castle and the romantic lochs. But the students quickly realized that this lecture would be different.
The speaker was from the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), and he knew how to play to an audience. He soon had the Americans firmly committed to the cause of Scottish independence. Dressed in a kilt with all the trappings, the text of his speech was primarily the American Declaration of Independence. He compared the Act of Union, which joined Scotland and England in 1707, to America's hated Stamp Tax, and he likened SNP leaders William Wolfe and Margo MacDonald to Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. The analogy was undeniably forced, but Bicentennial fever had struck the Americans already, and they gave a thunderous ovation to this fiery Scotsman whose cheeks were rosy from daily games of golf in the nippy summer wind. "Two hundred years after our American cousins broke free from English domination, we Scottish feel it is time to do the same, and we shall succeed," he concluded with a flourish.
Assuming the rest of the SNP has powers of persuasion similar to this kilted gentleman's, why then did a proposal to set up a Scottish Assembly with limited home-rule fail to attract the necessary support in a Scottish referendum in early March? Polls have shown that as much as 80 per cent of the population wants Scotland to have more say in its own governance; they support proposals ranging from complete independence for Scotland to some form of federalism to the limited home rule, called "devolution,' suggested in the referendum.
Devolution means the delegation of central government powers to other governmental bodies while Parliament retains sovereignty. In this case, Parliament would permit the formation of popularly elected Scottish assembly with the power to determine spending priorities in areas such as education, housing, health and agriculture. The Assembly would have no taxing power, but would receive a block grant from Parliament. Parliament retains authority over economic and financial policies, regional trade and international representation, and has an all-important veto over any assembly action that "threatens the national interest."
Only 52 per cent of those who voted on devolution favored the plan, and low turnout resulted in only 33 per cent of those eligible to vote endorsing the plan. Parliament's legislation stipulated that 40 per cent of those eligible to vote had to approve the new Assembly before Scotland could hold elections to fill the Assembly already prepared in Edinburgh.
The vote did not just involve the Scot's love of their homeland, which explains the ho-hum reaction. Devolution is a complicated economic issue as well as a political football in Great Britain. This vote was tangled in legislative complications and party machinations and can not be viewed as a clear mandate one way or the other on the question of either devolution or Scottish independence.
Scottish patriotism is nothing new; the ascendance of the SNP is. Scotland has a long and rich tradition of national heroes and national folklore, and many Scots still consider themselves Scots first and Britons second. But at its inception in 1964, the SNP garnered only 2 per cent of the Scottish Parliamentary vote and did not win its first spot at Westminster until 1967. Suddenly, in 1974, the SNP won 111 important seats, capturing 30 per cent of the Scottish vote. Now well ahead of the Conservative Party in Scotland, the SNP is breathing down the neck of the Labor Party. British Prime Minister James Callaghan, a Laborite, now sees the survival of his minority government as dependent on a shaky unofficial coalition with the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. Because of Callaghan's vulnerability, the SNP has been able to make devolution a major issue.
Scotland may get its Assembly anyway. Callaghan has the option of pulling a Parliamentary maneuver to try and scrap the 40 per cent stipulation and establish the Assembly on the basis of the 52 per cent of the turnout which supported the plan. The SNP has threatened to abandon Callaghan and call for a vote of no confidence in Parliament. Without the support of the SNP, Callaghan would almost certainly have to call new elections which, given the current state of the economy, could be disastrous.
Scotland has experienced other home rule campaigns, but this one is particularly meaningful because Scotland now has the economic power to survive on its own. Other movements have been dampened by the obvious advantages for Scotland in terms of economic support and political power of remaining in the mighty United Kingdom. But recently, being British has become less attractive as inflation and unemployment wrack the country and hit Scotland even harder than England. Relief gushed out of the North Sea in the early '70s in the form of oil, and as much as 30 per cent of known American reserves, which by 1980 could provide about $7 billion in revenue to whichever government has the power to tax it.
Some people in Scotland feel that a purely Scottish authority should control the oil because it appears to lie in Scottish waters. They view devolution as a first step to an assembly with the power to tax, and a few hope that complete independence will soon result.
Independence would take the oil out of English hands, a consequence no one in England wants to see. Callaghan, fearing the loss of the oil and the support of the SNP, reluctantly shepherded a devolution plan through Parliament in the hopes that it would not be a first step to complete independence, but would satisfy the Scottish desire for more self-government.
The gamble backfired on Callaghan. Some people backed Callaghan's plan because they want Scottish control in government and see devolution as the way to do it. But many opposed devolution, either because they dislike big government and the prospect of higher taxes or because they actually want more self-governance but think that this particular plan is a paltry concession from Westminster that will be used as an excuse to ignore future requests for more autonomy. They felt the bill was designed more to help Callaghan and his failing party than to help Scotland.
Because supporters of home rule can be found on both sides of the devolution issue, as can supporters of a continued United Kingdom, it is not surprising that the significance of the devolution vote is foggy. Add to this the charge that more than ten per cent of the names of Scotland's voting rolls are invalid, and the fact that Britain has no established tradition of referendum, and it becomes clear that the devolution vote will not be the last the world hears of Scottish home rule.
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