Leading Article: A self-induced tartan nightmare

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THAT TONY Blair is to make yet another of his morale boosting trips to Scotland this Thursday speaks volumes about the panicky mood in the Labour camp. The cause of the panic can be summed up in three letters: SNP. Despite a "summer offensive" against the Nats, Mr Blair's party still trail them in the polls. Labour has long regarded Scotland as its fiefdom and their predicament is as unfamiliar as it is uncomfortable.

Mr Blair might be forgiven for asking how such a rotten state of affairs could have come about. Can he not claim Scottish roots? Did he not deliver devolution to the Scottish people? Has he not appointed Scots to important positions in his government? Is not his own spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, a bagpipe enthusiast? What's gone wrong?

Mr Blair, though, should not be so bewildered. Today, Labour is seen in Scotland as an essentially English party. It is a product of New Labour's obsession to the point of mania with the priorities of middle England. The Scottish Labour Party has been simply told to make a pledge not to use the discretion allowed to a Scottish Parliament to vary the rate of income tax. The irony of Labour's freakish preoccupation with central control of party affairs whilst spouting the rhetoric of devolution hasn't been lost on the Scottish voters. Neither has Labour's appallingly sleazy record in local government gone without notice.

Mr Blair once, rather unwisely, dismissed the new Scottish Parliament as little more important than a parish council. Now, though, the Prime Minister has perhaps realised that the direction of Scottish politics is not such a trivial business. If Labour fail to win power at the first elections to the Scottish Parliament next year this will break the spell of New Labour invulnerability, damage Mr Blair's image as a "winner" and, crucially, place in jeopardy the chances of a second term of office. No wonder he's a wee bit worried.