UGANDA: Devolution Off

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Welsh and Scots vote nay

"This is a struggle for the soul of the country." So declared an impassioned leader of the upstart Scottish National Party, as Britain approached a long-awaited referendum on "devolution," the Labor government's plan to transfer authority in health, education, housing and other matters from the Parliament in Westminster to regional assemblies to be established in Edinburgh and Cardiff. What prompted Labor's initiative was not a question of soul but of cold politics. Though the Nationalists had been campaigning for greater independence for years, they never won much attention until 1974, when the Scottish party won in Scotland a surprising 30% of the vote in general elections and took over eleven seats in Parliament. By then Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, had won three seats. So the minority Labor government, troubled by the nationalists' inroads on traditional Labor strongholds, decided to press for devolution.

But when the plan was finally put to a vote in Scotland and Wales last week, it was turned down. Welsh voters, fearing that the practical effect of limited self-rule would be the creation of a costly new bureaucracy, rejected the idea by a 4-to-1 margin. Still, the big surprise came in Scotland, where as recently as a month ago opinion polls showed voters favoring devolution by almost 2 to 1. In the end, barely 33% of the eligible voters had said yes to the plan, while 31% had said no. Since 40% of all those registered to vote had to approve if devolution were to pass, the proposal was defeated.

Appealing to local pride, the Scottish Nationalists argued that if devolution failed to pass, Scotland would "be good for nothing more than to tart up a few British ceremonies." But the antidevolution forces, led by the Conservative Party, mounted a late-blooming campaign that focused on an even more basic Scottish instinct: they charged that the cost of home rule would be quickly felt in the form of higher taxes. Some Scots also began to ponder the fact that devolution might lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, which none but the most extreme nationalists want.

The vote was a blow to Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan, who is already beset by a sharp slide in the polls and a Labor rebellion against his anti-inflation program. But the referendum is not binding, and he can still press for a Scottish assembly, citing the majority vote for it. As long as Callaghan can hold out some hope for the nationalists, he is assured of their support for a while longer, at least. ∙