The United Kingdom remains united. In a historic vote earlier this week, the Scots and the Welsh held elections to select representatives for their own newly created Parliaments. Preliminary results indicate that the Labor Party will hold the most seats in the new legislature sitting in Edinburgh, but it will not command a majority. It is expected to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party, although party officials have refused to speculate. In Wales, Labor also holds a commanding lead and might even claim a majority. In both houses, nationalist parties will have a strong presence, but they will be in the opposition. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gambled and won.
The Welsh lost their self-rule over 500 years ago. Scotland became part of the United Kingdom under the Act of Union in 1707. In both cases, relations with England have been tangled and frequently bloody. Even after centuries of English dominance, the two subject peoples each retained a distinctive national identity and a smoldering resentment of London.
Mr. Blair hoped to quiet some of the ill feeling and strengthen support for Labor in two of the party’s traditional strongholds. He bet that voters wanted more power, but that they would be unwilling to opt for complete independence. He appears to have been right.
Mr. Blair offered voters in Scotland and Wales more control over their daily lives through “devolution” — the partial transfer of power from the central government in London to the new assemblies. The new Parliament in Scotland will have authority over areas such as health care, education, transport, law and order and housing. It can also change the income tax up to three pence per pound from the national rate; the Welsh assembly will not have the tax power. In short, Mr. Blair and the people of Scotland and Wales have embraced a form of federalism like that practiced in the United States.
Will that be enough? For now, the answer is yes, but Mr. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, has no intention of renouncing his ultimate goal of independence. Since his typical supporter is 35 years old or younger, his base is likely to solidify over time. Mr. Blair’s strategy is contingent on “di
vorce” being an expensive proposition for Scotland. And since Scotland receives, on a per capita basis, more money from England than it pays out in taxes, the logic holds. Should there be a change in the economic equation, however — if England suffers an economic slowdown, for example, and the central budget is tightened — Mr. Salmond may get another chance to sing the siren song of nationalism. With his party locked in as the opposition with a significant presence, the independence-minded leader will have a permanent forum in which to voice his opinions and rally the faithful. (For Mr. Salmond, the promise of a platform cuts both ways. Analysts say his outspoken criticism of the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia and his call for increased spending instead of Labor’s tax cut did much to hurt the SNP’s showing at the polls.)
While most of the attention in this week’s vote focused on the regional assemblies, there were also local elections in cities and counties throughout England. Labor seems to have prevailed in those tallies, too, but the Conservative Party has rebounded from its abysmal showing in the 1997 general election and picked up over 1,000 seats; projections show it increasing its share of the vote by 2 percent. Those gains, along with a comeback in Scotland by the party — a second, proportional vote looks to give the party 11 to 17 seats in the new assembly after it was shut out in 1997 — mean that Mr. William Hague, the Tory leader, is safe in his position for now.
If Mr. Hague is celebrating, so is Mr. Blair. Nationalism has been bested. Part of the reason for that is the prime minister’s popularity and the relative strength of the British economy. A reversal in either could change the calculus among Scottish and Welsh voters. The key to a continuing union will be the meaningful devolution of authority and the channeling of nationalist sentiment into productive outlets. The new assemblies offer patriots a chance to take control of their lives: They represent a real turning point for British politics.
There are many ties that bind the United Kingdom together: language, history, culture. But each could just as easily become a wedge. Nationalist grievances are genuine and they will not go away.
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