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Political Cry Raised: 'Scotland Free by '93!' : Scottish Nationalism Threatens British Unity

December 25, 1988|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

GLASGOW, Scotland — Two notices in the window of the Govan District Information Center here tell a lot about the newly volatile character of Scottish politics.

One sarcastically offers "Tips for the poor" from the government's Department of Health and Social Security: "Don't go into a supermarket when you're hungry. Buy nearly stale food 'bargains' or grow your own food. Give up meat and fish and substitute soya."

The other reports: "Helpful advice from Mrs. Thatcher to a 73-year-old pensioner living on 9 pounds (about $16) a week: Get a bank loan."

The first notice underlines the economically depressed condition of this industrial district of Glasgow; the second its bitterness toward British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And both are part of the story behind what has been seen here as one of the country's biggest political upsets since World War II.

Firebrand Elected

Voting in a Nov. 10 by-election to fill a parliamentary vacancy, Govan residents sent to Westminster a nationalist firebrand who advocates that Scotland pull out of the 281-year-old pact that binds it to England as part of the United Kingdom.

Scottish National Party candidate James Sillars' campaign slogan was "Scotland Free by '93!" and his upset victory in a district considered a shoo-in for his Labor Party rival jolted the country's political Establishment. According to British press reports, it even prompted an extraordinary, private expression of concern from the Queen over the future of the union.

One election doesn't spell the breakup of the state, of course. But Govan is just the latest sign of what appears to be a powerful new wave of Scottish nationalism, one that promises at the least to enliven British politics for many months to come, and at the most could reshape both Britain and the entire Western alliance.

"Govan suggests that the danger to the Union is a real one," wrote William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the London Times and now a Conservative member of the House of Lords. "If the Scots will not accept the status quo, they cannot, in the end, be made to do so."

Parliament in Edinburgh?

Bill Speirs, deputy general secretary of the powerful Scottish Trades Union Congress and former chairman of the Scottish Labor Party, said in an interview: "I think it's safe to say that before the end of the century we'll see a Parliament in Edinburgh in some form."

Recent polls show that as many as three Scots out of four now opt for some type of self-government. As many as one in three favor full independence; the rest say they would be happy, at least for now, with a "devolved" legislature, empowered to handle purely Scottish issues, while Westminster continues to rule over such broader questions as defense and foreign affairs.

The rebellious mood carried into the House of Commons last week when 60 Scottish members of Parliament walked out in protest of the government's failure to set up a new select committee on Scottish affairs. The day after the walkout, several of the parliamentarians set up their own "alternative" committee and demanded that government ministers instruct the underlings to voluntarily testify before it.

It now appears certain that an organization called Campaign for a Scottish Assembly has enough support to launch a constitutional convention in Edinburgh next month. Its mission: to be "a focus of resistance and political negotiation which rejects comprehensively the authority of the existing government on matters peculiar to Scotland; which describes and demands . . . a new form of Scottish government; and which encourages civil disobedience . . . so far as this forms part of an orderly program to achieve it."

History of Rebellion

This is not the first time that the Scots have rebelled at what they perceive as English domination. "Almost since the Act of Union (in 1707) there has been a desire, almost a hankering in the bones, for Scottish self-government," Sillars, the newly elected member of Parliament, said in an interview.

There was a wave of Scottish nationalism in the late 1960s and one in the 1970s that began when another Scots separatist, Margo MacDonald, won an earlier Govan by-election. That round ended badly for the nationalists in 1979, when a referendum that would have given Scotland its own Parliament while keeping it in the union failed to win enough votes.

For a while it appeared that the 1979 defeat had destroyed the movement politically, but less than a decade later, another Govan by-election catapulted Sillars, to whom MacDonald is now married, into Westminster.

Like those earlier spasms, it may be that this new wave of nationalism will also pass without lasting impact. But longtime observers note that there are at least two significant differences this time: Thatcher and the move toward a single European market by 1992.

Political Polarization

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