A dangerous game to play with Scotland's future

It doesn't help the Tory case to suggest what is patently implausible: that a future Tory government would scrap the Scottish parliament
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The Independent Online
Stephen Dorrell yesterday threw away the politicians' election rule-book. By even implying that a future Tory government might repeal legislation setting up a Scottish Parliament, he has set a dangerous precedent for his party.

First, he may have given himself a lifelong reputation for Anglo-centric arrogance by threatening to overturn the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed in a future referendum. Second, he sacrificed one of the main advantages of incumbency by being drawn into discussion of how the Tories would behave in the supposedly unmentionable event of a Labour victory.

But third, and potentially most nerve-racking of all, he exposed his colleagues to an almost limitless series of supplementary questions between now and polling day: what else are they planning to unstitch when they return after a putative Labour term in office? Scrap the minimum wage? Remove the European Convention of Human Rights from British law? Hand back the windfall tax? Restore hereditary peers to the House of Lords?

Given that Mr Dorrell has strayed, by way of an interview in The Scotsman, into this perilous territory, and given that this ferociously ambitious politician is not in fact an idiot, it's worth asking why he did it. Be suspicious of the term "gaffe". It is part of the small change of party politics. But it frequently describes something more revealing, and certainly more interesting, than mere error. Gaffes are sometimes more premeditated than they look; and even the most serious ones usually happen for a reason. The reason why Mr Dorrell took the risk he did, however unsuccessfully, lies in an inevitable inconsistency at the heart of the Government's approach to the issue of devolution.

For ministers have been relentlessly apocalyptic about the outcome of a Scottish Parliament. Almost in passing, John Major said at his press conference on 7 January that devolution would have "lit a fuse" to an independent Scotland and a direct conflict between the Edinburgh parliament and Westminster. But Mr Dorrell, now appointed Mr Major's witchfinder- general on the Constitution, has hinted at even darker consequences.

In a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in November, Mr Dorrell preceded a long passage on devolution by referring portentously to the "bloodstained pages of history" and saying that "the last time the British resorted to the use of force to resolve their domestic political differences was nearly 250 years ago ... It is precisely their record on continuous evolutionary change which is now under threat from Labour's wide-ranging series of half-baked ideas for the constitution." In his Scotsman interview, Mr Dorrell's only qualification of this was to admit that devolution "need" not lead to civil unrest. But you can still script the scaremongering party political broadcast now.

Cue Edinburgh, circa 2001. The Labour Party in Scotland, paying the price for the Blair government's deep unpopularity, has been heavily defeated in mid-term elections to the Scottish parliament and a result the SNP is now the biggest single party. Reinforced by a small group of rebel Labour MPs, it has secured a vote in favour of independence in an Edinburgh Parliament which is now in direct collision with the Blair government's insistence that under the terms of the 1998 Scotland Act, Westminster remains sovereign and Edinburgh has no powers to declare UDI. There is clever footage of Belgrade-style demonstrations in the Royal Mile. We see English students at Scottish universities having their rooms ransacked by angry mobs. There have been hundreds of arrests and British troops have been called in to help the police to enforce order. Headlines in the normally sober Scotsman and The Herald are predicting civil war.

But there is a big problem for those painting the nightmare scenario, beside the obvious point that Scotland has not resorted to civil disorder during 18 years of having legislation imposed upon it by a government it never voted for. Which is that the Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth last year admitted, with commendable honesty, that it was "fantasy" to imagine that a future Conservative government could turn the "omelette" of a tax-raising Scottish assembly "back into eggs". In other words, the Tories would not dream of repealing a Scottish parliament. And, of course, few, if any, Scottish Tories think otherwise.

Ian Lang, who is even closer than Mr Dorrell to Mr Major, took exactly the same view - in private - when he was Scottish Secretary. And that was before Labour committed itself to the referendum which now makes repeal politically impossible, at the very least without another referendum. And understandably so. One of the reasons that, back in the Seventies, Mr Forsyth and Mr Lang both strongly believed in a devolved assembly was precisely that it could be a vehicle for a Tory revival in Scotland - a country, after all, in which as recently as the Fifties a majority of MPs were Conservative. And that, as they both know very well, still applies.

So that was the problem (one that he himself had played his part in creating) that Dorrell was, perhaps subconsciously, trying to solve: if the Scottish parliament is so catastrophic, why are the Tories pledged to keep it in being?

And it's why, instead of warning that devolution would lead inevitably to a reduced number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, or reduced per capita funding, or whatever, he chose to hint at repeal. But in doing so he not only held out what on any sensible expectations must be a highly unlikely prospect, to put it politely; he cut directly across the skilful act that Mr Forsyth has been running in Scotland, inconsistency or not: devolution will be a disaster and, what's more, you'll be stuck with it. Indeed one danger for the Tories about Mr Dorrell's remarks to The Scotsman is that they may, if anything, make anti-devolutionists feel safer about voting Labour. After all, if it all goes wrong, that nice English Mr Dorrell will come back and scrap it.

Labour's devolution plans remain open to debate; the West Lothian question - namely, whether it would be justifiable to keep a disproportionately high number of Scottish MPs in Westminster voting on English-only legislation, when English MPs would no longer be voting on similar Scottish legislation - hasn't itself been answered by Tony Blair's sensible decision to promise a referendum. There will be continuing disagreement over whether the Scottish Parliament will cement the Union or bring independence closer - as, for their very different reasons, Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, and John Major both claim. But it doesn't help the Tory case to suggest what is patently implausible, that a future Tory government would scrap a Scottish parliament. The sensible course for Mr Major would be to stand Mr Dorrell down and leave the Labour bashing, at least as far as Home Rule is concerned, to Michael Forsyth.