Parliament: Devolution: Brown attempts to strengthen the Union

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The Independent Online
GORDON BROWN made the Government's most spirited attempt since Scottish devolution to bolster the Union yesterday by announcing a series of joint north-south committees to co-ordinate social and high technology policies.

The initiative, including an attack on Scottish nationalism, was meant to show voters that the Union and co-operation between Westminster and Scotland was the best way to tackle issues such as jobs, health and education, which top voters' concerns.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech in Edinburgh also aimed to mark an end to the "turf wars" that have dogged relations between Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, and his Westminster counterpart, John Reid, the Secretary of State for Scotland. But the Scottish National Party claimed the move would allow Labour ministers in London to control the direction of the devolved Scottish Executive. It also interpreted the speech as a sign of Labour weakness.

"New Labour are running scared of the SNP," said John Swinney, the party's deputy leader. "If they weren't, then the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer would not devote an entire speech to attacking us."

There was some concern among Liberal Democrats, Labour's junior partners in the Scottish Executive coalition. Neither Mr Dewar, in praising the initiative, nor Mr Brown, in his speech, mentioned them, which could be read as a manifesto for Labour to work together across the various UK parliaments and assemblies. The joint cabinet committees, drawing on ministers from the Government and the Scottish Executive and covering pensioner poverty, child poverty and information technology, will represent a considerable constitutional innovation.

Mr Brown said Scotland must move beyond the politics of national identity and tackle the problems that affect Scottish society. "I believe that the Scottish people and their politicians want their institutions to work together to achieve the values they share and support," he said.

He criticised the SNP, accusing it of being more concerned with promoting separatism than tackling poverty. "They have more interest in Scotland working against Britain, even if the price is borne by the poor, than in Scotland and Britain working together to tackle poverty."

He added: "I do not believe the people of Scotland feel they have to choose between being Scottish and being British. The SNP are unable to meet the challenge of Scottish identity, which feels proud of being Scots without feeling the need to abandon being part of Britain.

"We should think of the Scottish Executive and British Government given a unique opportunity to work together to address the fairness question and build a Scotland true to our values."