And the mouse roared 'U-turn'

Labour has gone back on its pledge on devolution. Scotland is outraged, says Ian Bell
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The Independent Online
Sometimes you wish politicians wouldn't do you favours. In Glasgow on Thursday, for example, Gordon Brown was explaining how a referendum on Scottish devolution would "bury forever the black Tory lie that a tax- raising parliament would be imposed on the people of Scotland against their will". Very decent of him.

The trouble is, however, that according to every opinion poll this particular inky Tory fib is already six feet under. Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth's assault on the "tartan tax" has made absolutely no impact on Labour's dominance in Scotland. Why, suddenly, the fuss?

It was no less strange - downright spooky, in fact - to hear that Labour's putative "low-tax chancellor" intends to campaign to give fiscal powers to an Edinburgh parliament, powers that would make a mockery of his taxation policies for the United Kingdom. That such powers would also affect the good folk of Dunfermline East, whom Mr Brown represents, only added to the confusion.

It is possible that ignorance explains all. In advance of Tony Blair's courageous (aren't they always?) visit to Edinburgh yesterday, his people were telling London newspapers that the Scottish media - whose reaction to the referendum plan has mixed disbelief with outrage - are "out of touch". That's us in our place, then.

But our place, in every sense of the word, is the problem. Politically, Scotland is a place in which our English neighbours show little interest, and one which they understand less. Our dissatisfaction with our place in the British scheme of things is something they understand least of all.

Scotland doesn't fit; it is anomalous, from its quaint legal and education systems to its quixotic refusal to embrace Conservative government. It has a political culture and a set of aspirations - with home rule at their heart - entirely of its own. This week Blair's team set out to knock Scotland into shape while proclaiming - but this is the clever part - their complete understanding of how different Scotland is.

Bear in mind that a referendum is the one idea Labour has rejected consistently and vehemently, for years. From shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson down, the party has argued that a Labour general election victory is the only endorsement a tax-raising parliament requires.

Now we hear that Robertson has enjoyed a Damascene conversion. Cinders shall go to the ball, but only if she votes for it in a referendum. Moreover, it is to be a two-part plebiscite, first to accept the parliament itself, second to clarify its fiscal powers. Saintly Scots are to be asked how much they love taxation.

The louder the denials grow, the clearer it becomes that Blair knows exactly what he is about. The tax question, it is said, will "shoot Forsyth's fox". But in Scotland the fox isn't running. The referendum will spike Major's guns as he tries to turn the Union into a crusade. But what John Smith called the "settled will" of the Scots is perfectly clear - and besides, if Labour's thinking on the constitution is so persuasive, why doesn't Blair stand by it, and fight the Scottish issue as a manifesto commitment?

Interestingly, Blair's belief in devolution did not extend to consulting the majority of his Scottish MPs over his new wheeze. Even John McAllion, supposedly Scottish spokesman on constitutional affairs, was kept in the dark. But then McAllion, who has now resigned, was long suspected of being a shade too keen on home rule. He might have made a fuss.

Fuss, in general, is what the hierarchy hopes will soon pass. They should be so lucky. The suspicion is that Blair is finessing a near-sacred commitment (John Smith's "unfinished business") simply to keep the issue off the general election agenda, and to ensure that devolution, if it comes, will be a trivial affair. Some, this writer included, believe a repeat of the 1979 referendum debacle would actually suit him. At the very least, he wants out from under the commitment to taxation powers.

Blair, we suspect, has gazed upon the Scottish anomaly and repented. How about all that extra identifiable (and forget the rest) expenditure Scots get? How about the over-representation of Scottish MPs (perpetually outnumbered) at Westminster? What of the West Lothian question, the prospect of Scots voting on English affairs when English MPs (the ones who gave Scotland a year of its very own "purely" Scottish poll tax) can no longer legislate on Scotland?

But these are English concerns, British fears. Scotland wants greater control of its affairs. Labour gave a solemn promise that this would come to pass and now Blair has, to be very polite, amended the pledge. Yet the politics of Scotland offers no motive for doing so. The only real explanation is that the Labour leader feels incapable of defending the Scottish claim before an English electorate. There's a lot of English nationalism about all of a sudden, is there not?

Therefore he postpones the whole business until after an election.There will be a parliament, but nothing too serious. Edinburgh will resume its historic place among the great local authorities of the world and the union will be renewed and reborn, or some such think-tank twitter.

But really? Yesterday Blair was in the Scottish capital to knock heads together and once again show us the guts of which, famously, he has so many. Let us try to read these pink entrails.

Labour wins the general election, though not by a huge margin. At the speed of light (say six months?) a referendum is held. Blair tours the country explaining why devolution is nature's sovereign remedy, and why his cast-iron chancellor sees no problem, in logic or in principle, in reconciling his fiscal rectitude to an Edinburgh parliament with the right to levy additional taxes.

The parliament goes through on the nod but barge-poles decline tax-raising powers. Scotland says "Yes" and "No". Someone wonders whose bright idea all this was in the first place and Scottish Labour lapses into tribal warfare. Some then drift off to the SNP, which suddenly looks like a rather good bet for elections to the Edinburgh parliament.

And one fine morning Prime Minister Blair wakes up, too late, to a real Scottish problem.

Ian Bell is a columnist on the 'Scotsman'.