Blair blunder exposes devolution plan's central dilemma of devoution plan

Tony Blair may have been schooled in Edinburgh, but he is as thoroughly English as any Westminster figure. When it comes to Scottish politics, he doesn't speak the language.

By insisting yesterday that sovereignty belongs solely to Westminster and comparing the tax-raising powers of his proposed Scottish parliament to an English parish council, Blair depressed many Scots. Wittingly or not, he slapped down a whole tradition of leftish Scottish politics, embraced by his own party and friends.

It holds that, in a modern state, sovereignty belongs to the people themselves; and that a Scottish parliament is an expression of national identity.

Nine years ago, John Smith, the former Labour leader, Donald Dewar, Blair's chief whip and George Robertson, the shadow Scottish Secretary, were among the 58 Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who signed the ``Claim of Right'' which declared ``the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.'' Compare Blair's assertion that ``we are not devolving sovereignty ... that local services that Scotland is running, Scotland can make the laws for''.

These may seem intriguing but tiny points. They are not. By confirming the old Westminster-is-absolute theory of British government, Blair hints that he will be as centralist in Downing Street as he has been as Labour leader. He implies that the Scottish parliament is a loaned, local affair, not to be taken too seriously, despite the self-conscious pomp of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

There is a more general point. This was not the tone of a natural reformer or decentralist: English reformers, as well as Scottish home-rulers, will be a little queasy.

Yet there is another, more favourable explanation. It is simply that, when discussing Scottish home rule, Blair thinks far more carefully and seriously about his English audience than his Scottish one. This is a natural and sensible thing for him to do. He is defending himself against the most dangerous attack, which comes from the south, and is hostile to devolution.

And if he is the man who actually delivers what has been talked about and promised by centre-left politicians since the early years of this century, why would anyone quibble over the election-campaign semantics? So most of Labour's Scottish supporters will bite their tongues, and bide their time.

In the longer term, though, this sort of Westminster Unionism is just the language to help the rising Scottish Nationalists and drive some of the already-disaffected Scottish Labourites into their ranks. The big danger to Home Rule was always a tactical alliance between Tory Unionists and the socialist SNP against what is, in reality, the moderate position taken by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish churches.

So though Blair has made his first election blunder we should not rush to judgement. In delivering devolution, he has a horribly difficult and intricate job ahead of him: the continuation of Britain probably depends on him pulling it off.