Leading Article : Referendum on Scottish devolution is the right way to go

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Referendums are a good way of allowing the people to choose directly on big issues. Tony Blair was right to go for one on Scottish devolution. But in adding a second question, about powers to tax, the Labour leadermade it clear that he comes not to praise Home Rule for Scotland but to bury it.

This is a momentous change in Labour policy, however disguised. Labour MPs are admitting privately that they do not expect that the Scots, or anyone else, would go out of their way to vote explicitly for a tax-raising power.

Is that not the whole point? On this basis, any potentially difficult policy can be dropped simply by promising a post-electoral referendum before it is introduced. What about one for the whole UK on income tax?

Yet Mr Blair has defended the need for a tax-raising Scottish Parliament, for instance in his John Smith memorial lecture in February. Then he approvingly quoted an old Conservative briefing which said it would ''impart a financial discipline as well as enabling the Assembly to innovate, establish new priorities and develop neglected fields.'' Quite right: the power to tax is what marks a proper parliament from a mere elected committee.

Blair's move does not stop there. The Scottish Constitutional Convention's first declaration, signed by the Scottish Labour MPs, asserted ''the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs".

Yesterday Blair retreated from this bold clarity to a conventional and conservative definition of sovereignty. He said his legislation on Scotland and Wales would include ''a clear statement ... of the sovereignty of Parliament". Westminster would merely establish ''a subsidiary assembly or parliament''.

By those words, and by revisiting taxation through a referendum they must expect to lose, Mr Blair and his advisers have in effect subverted the Convention and the leftish Scottish political establishment it embodied. No wonder they are furious.

Blair's judgement is that the Scottish anger matters much less than blunting the attack of English Conservatives. And in the short term, it is probably the right tactical judgement; the retreat on Scottish Home Rule makes Blair seem more conservative on the one big area where he had before looked radical. Never dangerous, he now looks even safer.

But that carries its own, longer-term dangers. It makes it likelier that the Scottish assembly will be seen as a damp squib - a watery Blairite failure rather than a crisp success. That failure would split the Scottish Labour Party, help the SNP and further destabilise the Union. It feels, in short, like a clever London fix that is just a little too clever to work.