Blair stirs up Home Rule vote

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday tried to work his personal magic on a jittery campaign for Scottish home rule, telling voters they had "nothing to be frightened of, except fear itself".

The Prime Minister's problem, however, is that many Scots are not so much afraid of devolution as apathetic towards it. Behind Mr Blair's election- style campaigning lies an unease in the Labour high command and among their home-rule allies that the turnout could be low and the outcome a messy, unconvincing mandate for a parliament in Edinburgh.

In a series of speeches and walkabouts in the central belt, the Prime Minister urged Scots to have confidence in their ability to govern themselves and to reject scares over giving the new Parliament tax-raising powers.

"The idea that this is a power with which the Scottish people can't be trusted, I just find that wrong, absurd even," Mr Blair said during an hour-long question and answer session at Trinity Academy, an Edinburgh comprehensive school.

He presented the Parliament as the mature next step to the "bureaucratic devolution" to the Scottish Office of responsibility for services including health, education, local government and the environment.

However, of 17 questions put to Mr Blair at the Academy by an invited audience of predominantly middle-class adults and senior pupils - the kind of intelligent audience most likely to be concerned about issues of democracy - only four were about home rule. Student fees, education generally, and housing were more pressing concerns.

The disturbing irony for the ministers, who have descended in force on Scotland this week, is that they are calling for a double "Yes" vote at a time when the clamour for home rule is at its lowest for 18 years.

Mr Blair was applauded on the streets yesterday with a warmth that would never have been extended to John Major or Baroness Thatcher, hated by Scots for using them as poll tax guinea pigs. Privately, senior Labour figures in Scotland wonder why, having won real power at last, they should devolve it to what would most likely be a Parliament led by coalition.

Labour's fear of a low turn-out became evident last week, when officials emphasised that "real" electorate for Thursday's vote was about 3.5m rather than the 3.97m on the official register. Some 400,000 people are assumed to have moved or died since the list was drawn up last October.

Jitters about the outcome also appeared to be behind a suggestion by Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, that his Orkney and Shetland constituents should be given a degree of autonomy from a Scottish Parliament. The islands emphatically rejected devolution in the 1979 referendum and Mr Wallace's proposal was seized on by "No" campaigners as an admission that they will do so again.

With William Hague, the Tory leader, due to bang the anti-home rule drum today, the hitherto barely evident "Think Twice" campaign claims to be gaining ground. Opinion polls indicate a comfortable majority in favour of a Scottish Parliament, but Brian Montieth, the Think Twice organiser, believes Scots will deny it any tax varying powers. An ICM poll on Sunday showed that just 45 per cent of voters support the power to raise taxes by up to 3p in the pound, while 38 per cent were against - the lowest margin yet.

Lord Fraser, Director of Think Twice and the former Lord Advocate, said Mr Blair's promises of no tax rises were "empty rhetoric" that could not be delivered. "What Mr Blair can deliver is the highway to independence as an Edinburgh Parliament becomes the focal point for all the dissent and rancour that a mid-term Labour government faces."

Tam Dalyell, Labour's lone voice against home rule - or at least the only one raised in public, said: "As Mr Blair found out today, people's grievances are about money for things like schools and shortening hospital waiting lists, not about how we are governed."