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National Agenda : Scots' Sentiments Surge Toward Independence : * A new poll shows 50% want a divorce from Britain. The next election may put that view into the ballot box.

February 25, 1992|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EDINBURGH, Scotland — It is sometimes said that this lovely, Georgian-style city above the broad, glistening Firth of Forth is a capital without a nation.

Now, however, nearly three centuries after Scotland's 1707 union with England, that saying may be on its way out. For the cause of Scottish nationalism has surged dramatically in recent months with an impetus that has surprised Scots themselves and shaken British politicians.

An independent Scotland is no longer seen as a vague concept or a rallying cry for Scottish extremists, but as a real possibility that has caught Britain's major political parties unprepared.

And the next British general election, widely predicted for April 9, will have special significance for the 5.1 million Scots living in their solid northern cities, misty glens, heathered moors and highlands and craggy offshore islands. For that election will be read as a vote for home rule at the minimum, and possibly for outright independence. Either option would fundamentally alter the relationship under which Scotland has been fully integrated into Britain.

As Brian Groom, deputy editor of Scotland on Sunday, put it: "In Scotland, we will be having a completely different election. Essentially, it will be much more interesting than the one taking place in England."

The upwelling of Scottish nationalism surfaced publicly late last month in an opinion poll published by the Scotsman, the Establishment daily. It showed for the first time that 50% of Scots favor independence.

Alex Salmond, 37, a soft-spoken former oil economist who heads the independence-minded Scottish National Party (SNP), believes that any vote that approaches 50% for his party in the general election will be tantamount to approval of Scottish independence.

Equally, he rejects any halfway house along the road to independence--namely devolution, a loose concept of home rule that would grant Scotland its own legislative assembly under the mantle of British sovereignty.

"That 50% polling figure was devastating," he commented in his modest office just off Charlotte Square--a short walk from Edinburgh Castle and its skirling pipers. "It focused everyone's minds, showing that half the Scots wanted independence, and 27% favoring some form of home rule, with only 19% approving of the status quo.

"So we are now in a race to win the majority of Scottish seats in the Parliamentary election, and if we do, we will then begin negotiations with London for Scottish independence."

The political situation in Scotland presents different quandaries for Britain's two major parties--the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labor Party.

Scotland elects 72 members to the 650-seat British House of Commons. Of those, Labor has by far the largest number, with 48 seats. The Liberal Democrats have 10, and the SNP has five. The Conservatives, or Tories, rate only nine seats--having just lost one to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election late last year.

The Conservative government is against Scottish independence because it would diminish Britain both as a world player and in the European Community--and it could lead to secessionist movements in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also acutely aware that many British voters object to the kind of home rule that would give Scotland its own assembly--allowing it to make separate laws for Scots, while at the same time electing parliamentary members to London who would legislate for the United Kingdom at large.

But staunch Tory support for the status quo in Scotland has cost the party dearly. Both the Scottish Conservative party and the national government are fiercely unpopular here.

So the betting is that while Prime Minister John Major "thinks that devolution is a bad idea," as a senior aide put it, he will nevertheless after the election go along with some form of limited home rule for Scotland.

Independence has even greater pitfalls for the Labor Party, which backs a devolved assembly for Scotland with special legislative powers.

As the respected political columnist Frank Johnson put it: "Nearly one-quarter of the Labor Party's parliamentary seats come from Scotland. If Scotland were independent (and those Labor seats lost), it would mean a permanent, inflexible Tory majority in the House of Commons. So Labor has to support more self-rule for Scotland--but short of outright independence.

"Conversely, some Tory politicians would love to see the recalcitrant Scots cut loose, thereby assuring themselves permanent political control over England."

For their part, Scots argue that they are being unfairly governed by a Tory party which is now running in fourth place in Scotland: behind Labor, the Liberals, and the Scottish Nationalists.

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