Election '97: Scots line up for referendum battle

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The Independent Online
Barely will election posters have been torn from the lamp- posts in Scotland before voters are subjected to another bout of saturation campaigning.

The campaign for "yes" votes in a referendum for a Scottish parliament is already in motion and preparing for its formal launch in a fortnight's time.

Partnership for a Parliament has bided its time during the warfare of the past six weeks in the hope of building an alliance of politicians from all parties as well as business, trade unions and the churches once the election dust has settled.

George Robertson, for one, Labour's spokesman for Scotland, would like to see pro-devolution Tories and Scottish National Party (SNP) members joining a broad coalition for a double yes vote - one for the Parliament and one for tax varying powers.

In a lecture 10 days ago, away from the heat of the hustings, Mr Robertson looked forward to a "more consensual model of politics" emerging in Scotland, notably as a result of the proportional representation system proposed for the parliament.

"I appreciate that for all of the political parties this will come as something of a culture shock - but it will ultimately be to Scotland's advantage if we can end the adversarial, yah-boo politics which has come to typify Westminster," he said.

However a parliament on Edinburgh's Calton Hill is still some years off - 1999 is the target date - and for the next six months campaigners will be focused on the referendum planned for the autumn.

Partnership for a Parliament is the working title of the organising group for yes votes to the devolution scheme drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

A catchier title will emerge before the launch on 15 May. A Tory victory would wreck the timetable but prospect of an alliance for reform would still be explored.

Chaired by Glasgow businessman Nigel Smith and with Esther Roberton, former co-ordinator of the Convention, as acting organiser, the group has set up a small office within walking distance of the proposed parliament building.

Some pounds 130,000 has been raised from unions and business together with a contribution for research from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

Four places have been left vacant on the steering group for Conservative and SNP figures to complete the spread of civic, political and business leaders involved.

Political parties are not formally represented but the group certainly has the support of Mr Robertson and Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. It also has the blessing of the Constitutional Convention, which remains in being as the guardian of the home rule blueprint agreed in 1995, but is deliberately keeping at arms length from it.

The Convention is anathema to the SNP and the Tories who refused to participate in its work.

The key questions for the referendum lobby over the next few weeks is whether Tory and SNP members will climb aboard and the scale of any "no" campaign. Ms Roberton said yesterday that if Michael Forsyth lost his Stirling seat a well-financed "say no" group would appear quickly.

"You can be certain of it. A clear majority of Scots want constitutional change. The challenge for us is to hold on to that support in the face of a fear campaign by the opposition and also voter fatigue," said Ms Roberton.