Election '97: Tartan tide turns for Robertson turns the tables

Stephen Goodwin reports on the devolution debate
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With Scottish footballers facing a crucial test in their World Cup campaign tonight, George Robertson has sent a letter to manager Craig Brown offering the same advice he keeps giving to the Labour team in Scotland - the battle isn't over until the final whistle blows.

Mr Robertson's chances of emerging with a smile are a good deal better than those of Mr Brown whose team are up against the technically superior Swedes in Gothenburg, but the disappointment of the 1992 election result was deeply felt and he takes not even his own 12,742 majority in Hamilton for granted.

The opprobrium heaped on Mr Robertson last summer as he struggled to justify Labour's gyrations over a referendum on a Scottish parliament now looks misplaced. What was regarded as an embarrassing debacle at the time is now being described as a sharp move, even a master stroke.

But the Tory attack continued on Labour's devolution proposals. John Major yesterday warned of the dangers of breaking up the Union.

"At the end of the day if the Scottish people decide they want to be independent that is something that would have to be respected," he said. "I believe that would be a mistake just as I believe devolution would be a mistake." And the Prime Minister also made it clear that he would rather have Scotland inside the Union, returning only a minority of Tory MPs, than see it leave.

Other ministers attacked Labour's devolution plans. Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, said a Labour win would damage the economy north of the border: "Within three days, Scotland's economy could once again be on the slide," he said.

In fact, the actual decision on home rule has been detached from Labour's election package. As a result, the party found it easier to run a low- key campaign around the bread-and-butter issues of health, education and welfare-to-work.

"People who talked about betrayal last summer completely misunderstood what it was about," Mr Robertson said. "You sometimes have to act decisively and be measured by what you actually produce."

On the campaign trail in Blantyre yesterday it was barely necessary for Mr Robertson to approach would-be voters. They stopped him, usually with a plea to make sure the country was rid of the Tories.

"There is a vehemence about people's voting intentions that I have never seen before," Mr Robertson said. "But it isn't just negative. People want a real change of priorities."

Mr Robertson has been shadow Scottish Secretary since 1993 and it had been assumed he would become the real thing in a Labour government. Now it is suggested that Tony Blair might choose Donald Dewar for the Scottish Office and offer Mr Robertson a cabinet post for Europe or Defence.

"I would like to be Secretary of State for Scotland, but we will just have to wait and see," he said diplomatically.

Mr Robertson owes his Shadow Cabinet place and his reputation as a Commons performer to his harrying of the Government over the Maastricht legislation. But the last year has been a tough one, both personally and politically.

He was rocked by the Dunblane shooting - his home is in the town and his children went to the primary school - and last May his mother died. On the political front, he often seemed at a disadvantage against Michael Forsyth and the SNP leader Alex Salmond, both effective street fighters. Mr Dewar, as a lawyer and wily Chief Whip, might be better at handling the Devolution Bills, it is argued.