Labour machine geared up for referendum

Big mandate needed to push legislation through, writes Douglas Fraser

Tax and Europe, those thorniest of Westminster issues, will be the most prickly of thistles for the Government to grasp this week as it lays its Home Rule plans before the Scottish voters for a referendum on 11 September.

The other key challenges facing Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar and his devolution deputy, Henry McLeish, are, first, how to enthuse the electorate on such dry fiscal and constitutional matters in a campaign much of which coincides with summer holidays and, second, finding a Parliament in which to put 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament late next year.

Bickering is reported to have come to an end within the Cabinet over which parliament should legislate on such issues as abortion and embryo research; the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster; and the relatively favourable spending formula for Scots. The status quo is expected to hold on all three, although a new English grouping of what might be called devo-sceptic ministers, emerged in the process, centred around Jack Straw, Frank Dobson and Jack Cunningham.

Watered down from allegedly being too "brave-heartish", much of Mr Dewar's plan is already well-known - having been based on the Scottish Constitutional Convention plans - but key issues remain under wraps until Thursday, when the Scottish White Paper is published. Attention will focus on how to implement the election pledge to allow a 3p variation in the basic rate of income tax, and on what rights, if any, the Edinburgh administration will have to negotiate in Brussels on Scotland's behalf.

Questions are also yet to be answered on: what role a Scottish secretary would play in a UK Cabinet in the long term; how potential, if not probable, disputes between the Westminster and Edinburgh Parliaments can be resolved and how much the new parliament, probably in a new building, will cost to set up and run.

But the most pressing question is how Mr. Dewar can spark sufficient interest in Scotland to guarantee the kind of referendum turn-out he needs to keep the Home Rule momentum going in Westminster for a subsequent year of bruising legislating.

In addition to Labour's campaign, the Scotland Forward group, chaired by low-key Glasgow businessman Nigel Smith, represents Labour, the Liberal Democrats, union and pressure groups and aims to set up branches in all 72 Scottish constituencies.

One irony of cranking up tired campaigning machines north of the border is that many in Scotland never wanted a referendum. The device was sprung on the Scottish Labour Party by Tony Blair a year ago to protect what was perceived as a weak electoral flank. On 1 May, more than 80 per cent of Scots voters backed parties with home rule policies, including the Independents. The referendum is not to test voter opinion again, nor to give them an option on independence, but to provide what ministers hope will be another thumping mandate with which to bludgeon the Bill through Westminster.

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