Scots romantic who would reinvent the power of the Union

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The Independent Online
Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, is said to be overjoyed that his gesture of bringing home the Stone of Scone has somehow reminded the Scots of the historical importance of the Union. His opposite number, George Robertson, in the run-up to the general election, appears to want to concentrate his mind on matters more concrete.

After being humiliated in Labour's summer of U-turns on devolution for Scotland, Mr Robertson had the unenviable and difficult job of convincing the Scottish party, the media and the electorate that Tony Blair's apparent "I-know-best" explanation for the enforced changes would somehow be for the better. Coping with more turns than an ice skater, Labour has now committed itself to a referendum on devolution should it form the next government. The Scots will be asked both if they want a devolved parliament and if that parliament should have tax-raising powers.

If Mr Forsyth now imagines himself as Sir Walter Scott reincarnated and is intent on continually reinforcing the symbolic power of 300 years of union with England as the foundation of his election campaign, Mr Robertson is equally a touch romantic when he speaks of, perhaps predictably, "new Scotland, new Union".

Unlike many in his party, he says he now sees the referendum as "not an obstacle, but an opportunity".

With Labour seemingly committed to fighting hard for a yes-yes vote, and anticipating a well-funded brutal campaign from the Conservatives for no-no, Mr Robertson curiously believes there is no hidden danger in the message he now says will be explained to the electorate in Labour's own campaign: it wants the power to tax but in effect will promise not to use it.

"The Scots will vote for it to be there, but the parliament itself will rarely use it," Mr Robertson says. He explains: "It's a power, not a tax. It's there if the people want it to be there."

Anticipating that such a campaigning tactic might be either open to accusations of unfairness (if you are being kind) or logical naivete (if you are being cruel), Mr Robertson defends the party plan by stating simply: "It's mature. The Scots have basic common sense and will understand the difference between a power and a tax."

"Mature" is a rarely used adjective in politics. The attack Mr Robertson suffered at this year's Scottish National Party conference, where he was accused of being Scotland's answer to the wartime traitor Lord Haw-Haw by Alex Neil, one of the SNP's senior spokesmen, is a recent example of the immaturity of much Scottish political debate. The slur annoyed Mr Robertson, but he skilfully used it to his advantage: "If it had been a comment from someone in the lower ranks of the SNP it would have been quietly dismissed. But all it showed was that despite the SNP's claims to be an organised, controlled and effective party, this is the level they can reduce themselves to."

Elected MP for Hamilton in 1979, Mr Robertson was quickly identified as a potential senior figure in any future Labour government's foreign affairs team. One of the party's star performers in the drawn-out Maastricht debate, it may seem to the outsider that being reduced to spats with the likes of Mr Neil is an unwelcome downturn in a political career. And, unusually in politics, he admits he may now even be campaigning for a policy that will see his power reduced. A Scottish parliament would elect its own chief minister, thus reducing the governor-general powers currently enjoyed by the Secretary of State in St Andrew's House in Edinburgh. So will it be a diminished job? "No, it will be a different job. It will be a channel of communication between the devolved parliament and Westminster."

He doesn't accept that he really wants both jobs. "I can't envisage the same person doing both." So where then do his ambitions lie? The reply, if not quite Francis Urquhart is almost there. "In politics you are unwise to declare your ambitions."

His office is currently receiving numerous invitations from English universities asking him to go and explain what devolution will mean. The joke among some Old Labour hardliners is that they would first like him to explain it to them. He may have had little room for manoeuvre in the chaos generated by Mr Blair's ordered changes on how devolution was to be implemented. Mr Robertson lost something, mostly his image of being honest.

Some inside the Labour party in Scotland believe he is unlikely to recover fully. Others believe he will. But the end result is that like the evangelism that sometimes appears to overtake Mr Blair, an almost excessive fervour also grips Mr Robertson, who is 50, when he speaks of reinventing the Union, attracting a new generation to politics, and talks of the Tories using Scotland as "the battleground for England ... to frighten them into believing that devolution will mean the break-up of the United Kingdom".

But just as Mr Robertson wants reinvention of the Union, redefining of the Scots' identity, rewriting of the rules of political responsibility for the Scots ("So we can stop blaming everyone else"), so Mr Forsyth has joined the debate on reinvention by simply proclaiming everything is fine the way it historically always has been.

Is that not a clever tactic? "No, it's dim," said Mr Robertson. "Because people don't like the way Scotland is run now."