Labour clarifies the mud of devolution

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The Independent Online
Labour was plunged into further acute embarrassment over devolution yesterday when George Robertson, the party's spokesman on Scotland, was forced to "clarify" the muddy confusion of its policy - and drop the party's latest referendum plan.

Having last weekend decided to stage a third referendum, on activation of the Scottish parliament's tax-raising powers, Mr Robertson staged a Glasgow press conference to say the additional vote was "not necessary and will not be pursued by the Labour Party".

The high-speed change, ridiculed by one Labour source as "not so much a U-turn as an S-bend", is the third change since June when the Labour leadership dropped its bombshell plan to ask the Scottish voters whether they wanted a Scottish parliament, and whether it should have the power to vary taxes by up to three pence in the pound.

Last weekend, Labour's Scottish executive decided on the further referendum on the use of that tax power - so unceremoniously jettisoned by Mr Robertson yesterday. He said that it clearly had no support, was not necessary and would not be pursued, although that was not the line he had steadfastly pursued in media interviews at the start of the week.

Yesterday, however, Mr Robertson and his party's Scottish general secretary, Jack McConnell, denied that Labour was in disarray over devolution, or that the decision amounted to a change in policy. It was described as a change of tactics.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, said: "The whole thing is just a dog's breakfast. They are making it up as they go along. Labour's latest U-turn - they are on two a week now - betrays the total impotence of George Robertson and his Scottish party, under the domination of London.

"Not since Spartacus led the revolt of the slaves have we seen such a cruel abuse of power, with Scottish Labour's hapless leaders crucified along the Road to Manifesto."

He later told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme that he thought Mr Robertson had been betrayed by his leader. "This policy has been made in Islington and made by people who have little understanding or sensitivity towards the interests of Scotland," he said.

Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Scottish affairs, told the same programme that Labour had "driven themselves into a cul-de-sac and they are trying now to get out".

The leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, claimed Labour's position on devolution had "descended into black farce".

He said: "No one in Scotland trusts the Labour Party any longer. They change their stance - even on something as fundamental as our constitutional future - whenever Tony Blair coughs ... It is that dictatorial policy-making by remote control from London, in which the priority is to woo Tory voters in Middle England, that has created this almost unbelievable mess."

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