Autonomy Offer to Scots Is Branded a Diversion Britain's Major Has Deputed a Scottish-Born Minister to Lead the Government's Campaign to Ease Nationalist Pressure `North of the Border'

Article excerpt

JOHN MAJOR'S government is bidding to head off determined moves by Scottish nationalists and devolutionists to secure greater independence for their country.

But a series of proposals aimed at giving Scotland's 72 members of the London Parliament a larger say in decisionmaking has been denounced by the government's opponents.

Alex Salmond, firebrand leader of the small Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants full independence for Scotland, called the government's proposals "a constitutional charade."

More menacingly, John Smith, leader of the opposition Labour Party, which favors a separate parliament for Scotland, on March 12 attacked the prime minister's blueprint as "timorous tokenism" and warned that the people of Scotland would not be "hoodwinked."

He said Mr. Major was trying to divert attention away from Scotland's economic difficulties and compared the prime minister to a rabbit caught "blinking in the glare as the juggernaut of slump and recession comes bearing down on him."

Despite his claim of wanting to give Scots a better chance to run their own affairs, Major has refused to reject a proposal that promises to become the litmus test of his government's Scotland policies: privatizing Scotland's water supplies.

In a March 8 public opinion poll published in The Scotsman (Scotland's national daily newspaper), 86 percent of Scots said they were against taking water out of the public sector and into the private sector. Even among Conservatives, 7 of 10 respondents were hostile to privatizing what they regard as a vital national resource.

Major has deputed Scottish-born Ian Lang, secretary of state for Scotland, to spearhead the London government's campaign to ease nationalist pressures "north of the border."

Mr. Lang says his package of measures unveiled on March 9 is the first serious reappraisal of the relationship between England and Scotland since the two nations signed a treaty of political union in 1707. The union makes Scotland part of the United Kingdom. What angers a growing number of Scots is that most decisions affecting their lives are made London.

Mr. Salmond, who leads a voluble group of three members of Parliament at Westminster, complains that North Sea oil and gas have been treated by the London government as essentially English resources, and that the 5 million people of Scotland have not benefited enough from petroleum profits in the last 20 years.

He says proposals to privatize Scottish water suffer from similar defects.

The SNP's nationalist philosophy includes a deep-rooted belief that the people of Scotland are culturally distinct from the English. Salmond has said that if Scotland achieves independence under SNP leadership it will apply for membership of the European Community as a separate state. …