Blair to defend U-turn on devolution

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, will today challenge critics of his U- turn over referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution to engage in "reasonable debate" rather than charges of betrayal.

In a speech in Edinburgh and a string of interviews, Mr Blair brushes aside a furious backlash in the Scottish Labour Party, which yesterday saw Lord Ewing, a former Labour minister, resign as joint chairman of the cross- party Scottish Constitutional Convention.

He will dismiss charges of betrayal as "utter nonsense" and urge his Edinburgh audience to ask whether a referendum is sensible or not. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan tried to set up a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, but failed. "If we win the election, I want to be the prime minister who does it," he will say.

Mr Blair will accuse the Scottish press of being "out of touch" with their readers. "What the media does not address is whether it is a good idea or not - they are stuck in the U- turn timewarp," said a spokesman for Mr Blair.

John McAllion, a frontbench spokesman on Scottish issues, is expected to resign today. "I'm absolutely furious at the change that has been announced. It's a disgrace," he said. He described the decision as an "insult" to the Constitutional Convention, in which Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, Church leaders, trade unionists and others have for several years been laying plans for a Scottish parliament.

However, at a meeting of Scottish Labour MPs last night, only three MPs, Irene Adams, Willie McKelvey and Dennis Canavan, attacked the proposal while 19 MPs spoke in favour.

They were yesterday joined by another left-wing dissident with nationalist tendencies, George Galloway, who described the plan as a "blunder" which will "split the Labour Party and our allies in Scotland right down the middle".

It emerged yesterday that the decision was only taken last week by Mr Blair, the three senior Scots in the shadow Cabinet, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and George Robertson, and by Ron Davies, the Welsh spokesman. Labour officials said the proposal for a referendum had arisen in discussions between Mr Blair and Mr Robertson, the Scottish affairs spokesman, in March.

Scottish Labour MPs yesterday predicted that a Labour government would secure a 70-80-per-cent "Yes" vote on the question of a Scottish parliament, but that the vote on its tax-raising powers would be "very tight".

Labour's plans plans12pt

t Referendums in Scotland and Wales in first six months of a Labour Government

t Both will ask if people support Labour's plans for assemblies

t If approved, a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly will be legislated for in the first year

t In Scotland people will also be asked if they support the Scottish parliament having the power to vary the standard rate of income tax by 3p in the pound, up or down

t A Welsh assembly should be elected by a system that has "an element of proportionality", rather than the first-past-the-post system preferred by the Welsh Labour Party in the past