Blair defends plans for Scots' referendum

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair mounted a fierce defence of his plans for a referendum on a Scottish parliament yesterday, dismissing his Labour critics as "pathetic".

On a tour of Scotland after a week in which his policy on devolution teetered on the edge of farce, he hit out in all directions with unconcealed impatience. Of Labour MPs, party activists and union leaders opposed to the second question in the referendum on the Scottish parliament's taxation powers, he said: "I have never heard of anything quite so pathetic as this. They should get a bit of sense into their heads."

A separate question to approve the power of an Edinburgh parliament to raise or lower income tax in Scotland has been condemned by Labour critics as "selling the pass" on the policy. But Mr Blair told the Scotsman newspaper: "The real reason why some people don't like the second question is because they fear that they may not get the result they deserve. Well, that is a very poor reason for opposing it."

He accused Sir David Steel, chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which includes Labour and the Liberal Democrats, of "sitting on the sidelines". Responding to Sir David's description of Labour as "headless chickens", Mr Blair said it was all very well people like Sir David saying they had always stood for devolution. "Well, he may have always stood for it, but he's never damned well delivered it."

In a series of interviews and speeches, including a question-and-answer session with pupils at Hamilton Grammar School, he said Labour was the only party which could deliver devolution, and a referendum would help push the legislation through the Commons.

In an implied criticism of earlier Labour leaders, Mr Blair said the reason devolution had not been delivered in the Seventies was because "enthusiasts" had been allowed to determine the agenda. For good measure, Mr Blair took a swipe at the Conservatives and Scottish National Party. "It is about time we forced the Tories and the SNP to say whether they will abide by the will of the Scottish people," he told a meeting in Aberdeen last night.

Earlier, he gave his "total support" to George Robertson, Labour's Scottish- affairs spokesman, who was responsible for last week's flip-flop over a second referendum. But his endorsement fell short of a guarantee of a seat in a Labour Cabinet. Admitting that last week's Scottish policy changes had been a "mess", Mr Blair said: "What I say to people when they say there are these U-turns is: 'Leave all that aside for a minute. Is what we are proposing right or wrong?' "