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Gary Younge
Jockeying for position

But when dawn broke on Sunday the Catholic faithful assembled across the road at St Mary's cathedral, to hear the reveller's lifestyle condemned from the pulpit in a statement read out by Scotland's eight Catholic bishops.

The battle over the decision to repeal section 28, which forbids local councils "to promote homosexuality" in schools, has been more intense in Scotland than anywhere else in Great Britain.

For the past fortnight the issue has scarcely been off the front pages of the Scottish press, which has devoted entire letters pages to the issue, quoting every thing from Nelson Mandela to Leviticus. On Sunday, millionaire businessman Brian Souter, who has donated £500,000 to a campaign to keep the section, threatened "poll tax style" demonstrations against the Scottish parliament if it pushes ahead with its plans for repeal.

The basic faultlines of the debate are identical to those in England - a mixture of ignorance and bigotry masquerading as populist conservatism, pitched against a small minority backed by the political class. But the row in Scotland goes beyond section 28. Despite all the column inches, nobody seriously believes that the Labour-Liberal coalition which runs the Scottish parliament is likely to go back on its word. What we are seeing is Scotland's key players jockeying for position as they square up to establish their credentials as the nation's political culture finds new expression in a devolved parliament.

Nowhere is this truer than with the Catholic church - last week its leader, Cardinal Thomas Winning, described homosexuality as a "perversion" - which is desperate to make its mark on the new political landscape. Catholics are a minority in Scotland but retain a powerful voice with the labour movement. Whatever their denomination, Scots take their religion far more seriously than the English. Even though, as in England, church attendance is declining, Scots remain almost twice as likely to attend church as the English, according to Christian research. And the church's influence is not confined to Sundays. On weekdays, religion segregates many schools, and on Saturdays it is likely to determine which football team you support - Celtic are known as the Pope's XI.

Scotland's liberal establishment thought it was was well on the way to establishing a progressive consensus to the left of Tony Blair, akin to the Scandinavian model. But in the absence of credible Conservative opposition it is now finding itself in head-on collision with a church which is claiming an influence similar to the Polish clergy, as the principle vehicle for social reaction.

The campaign to keep the clause had a huge impact on the debate in Westminster. Before the furore in Scotland the issue had only surfaced as an example of William Hague's "rightwing extremism" after his opposition to repeal sent Shaun Woodward into the hands of Labour.

Now it has re-emerged as a mainstream issue which is causing tension within Blair's cabinet. Last week, after the prime minister hinted that he might allow a free vote on the issue, the front page of the Scotsman proclaimed that the "tail was now wagging the dog". Blair eventually backtracked but the precedent had already been established - middle England was following middle Scotland's lead.

It is the most potent example yet of how devolution is set to transform political dialogue both between the nations of the United Kingdom and within them. Politics may be the art of the possible. But with the emergence of new parliaments and assemblies, drawing on their own distinctive political traditions, come the green shoots of new possiblities that are no longer so easy to dismiss.

If Labour can find a way to ensure that Scottish students only pay their tuition fees after graduation, then why can they not do it in the rest of the UK? If they can ban fox hunting there, why not here? And London and Wales are going their own way as well.

The row in Scotland over section 28 shows that these new devolved entites do not necessarily contribute to a more progressive national consensus - but they do provide forums for political and economic strategies not only to be discussed but enacted. They represent not only a fractured nation state but the disintegration of a national dogma. They show that there are only so many times you can keep saying "There is no alternative," before it starts sounding like petulance rather than pragmatism - especially when there clearly is an answer a few hundred miles up the A1.

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