THE Scottish National Party rounded on comedian Billy

Connolly yesterday after he accused them of being responsible for a growth in anti-English racism and dismissed the new Scottish Parliament as ''a joke''.

A senior source claimed that Mr Connolly's antagonism towards Scottish self-government rivalled that of Right-wing Tories such as former Scottish Secretary Sir Michael Forsyth, and described his comments as ''absurd'' and ''off the wall''.

The millionaire comedian, who once worked in the Clyde shipyards, has expressed his dislike of the Nationalists before. He is also known to have a somewhat love-hate relationship with the land of his birth and some of its national characteristics, and he hit out at the SNP and the new Parliament in an interview with the Sunday Herald newspaper.

He said ''I am an internationalist. It's entirely their fault, this new racism in Scotland, this anti-


''It was a music hall joke before - you know, like Yorkshire v

Lancashire or Glasgow v

Edinburgh. But there's a viciousness to it now that I really loathe and it's their fault entirely.''

Mr Connolly, who was invited to the opening of the new Parliament in Edinburgh on Thursday but will not be attending, insisted that no good was coming out of the changes taking place in Scottish life.

Of the Parliament he said: ''There are a lot of people talking about things like self determination, but they are abstracts. What you've actually got is another layer of government and they've sneaked in proportional representation. So you've got another layer of government, a third of whom you didn't vote for. It's an enormous joke.''

The SNP, acknowledging Mr Connolly was a fine comedian, however insisted that when it came to politics the joke was on him. A spokesman added: ''Billy Connolly says in the interview that he is a stranger to Glasgow now-

adays. On the basis of these off-the-wall remarks, he is also a stranger to the views of the vast majority of Scots who are enthusiastic about the Parliament and will dismiss his absurd remarks about the SNP as the nonsense they are.''

Meanwhile, with only a few days to go until the Queen opens the Parliament at its temporary home in the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, Presiding Officer Sir David Steel attempted yesterday to dismiss critical comments about the arrangements and the invitation list as ''a fuss about nothing'', although he admitted that some of the invitations had been sent out late.

However, he was ''very relaxed'' that Thursday would be the historic, colourful occasion they were all expecting.

There have been arguments about how much pomp and tradition should be included in the opening ceremony and criticism has mounted as it became known that many of the stars from showbusiness and sport who had been invited had turned down the opportunity to attend.

Film star and SNP supporter Sean Connery is one of the few big names who will be present. Sir David himself has been accused by some Labour MSPs of not getting the invitations out early enough and of personalising the guest list too much. Yesterday, Labour MSP Johann Lamont and the SNP member Kenny Gibson, speaking on BBC TV, both expressed regret that children were not being invited to the ceremony itself.

Others within the SNP suggested the real blame lay with the Scottish Office and former Labour Ministers who had been in charge before the new Parliament was elected on May 6.

Sir David, speaking as he was about to leave Israel where he has been attending a Liberal International Bureau meeting as well as meeting Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine National Authority, said he had made it clear since being elected Presiding Officer on May 12 that the details of the opening ceremony and the invitation list were a matter for him ''to agree and sign off''. As he had said previously, the buck stopped with him.

He insisted that the guest list of those from the arts and sport made up only a small number of the more than 600 who had been invited and was not central to the overall ceremony.

Sir David added: ''I freely admit that some of the invitations were sent out late, but this was due entirely to the fact that I wanted to expand the ceremony at Parliament Hall so it would become an integral part of the morning's proceedings, which I believe it is now with speeches from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Alex Salmond, David McLetchie and Jim Wallace.''

He said that expanding this part of the opening had allowed an extra 150 invitations to be issued. As many as 95% of those invited had now accepted and the spaces which had been created by those unable to attend allowed MSPs, allocated one ticket in the Assembly Hall, to apply for extra tickets in Parliament Hall.

Sir David insisted he was not offended in any way that a small number of people had not taken up their invitations as he fully understood that people did have other commitments.

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