Home-rule Scots seek elusive enemy

Click to follow
Indy Politics
More than 500 Scots will gather at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh today at the opening rally for a "Yes" vote in the referendum for a Scottish Parliament. No time has been lost in mobilising the home-rule troops, but like an advance guard in eerily silent terrain, where, they wonder, is the enemy?

As good democrats, the home-rulers are hoping a "No" campaign will emerge to ensure a lively debate on devolution and counter voter apathy - though they would not want it to be too effective.

Conservative sources were yesterday confident that a "No" campaign would get underway "in the next few weeks". But the party itself will not be fronting the campaign and there are doubts about funding.

The campaign against Labour's devolution proposals in 1979 got substantial backing from the Scottish business community. However, one businessman told The Independent yesterday that he doubted that wealthy backers would be so keen to put their heads above the parapet this time.

Today's rally is the first by Scotland Forward, a non-party grouping funded by pro-devolution business people, trade unions and individuals. The meeting was due to be held in Parliament House on Calton Hill but the venue had to be moved as the numbers registering surged past the 250 capacity.

Nigel Smith, the Glasgow businessmen chairing Scotland Forward, said his greatest fear was of complacency among home rule supporters. "The other side are very likely to have a lot of money and the ability to mount an ambush late in the campaign when it really matters."

The referendum, asking Scots if they agree or disagree with the need for a Parliament and whether it should have tax-raising powers, is expected to be held in early September.

Henry McLeish, the Scottish Office minister responsible for devolution, will give the Government's blessing to the Yes campaign at the rally, though no public funds will be provided.

To the relief of Yes campaigners, two Scottish Nationalists are likely to take up places on the group's executive alongside Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors and union and business leaders.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, welcomed the launch of Scotland Forward but will hold back from full endorsement in case the Government's home rule White Paper puts too much of a Westminster straitjacket on the new Parliament.

Two seats will be kept open on the executive for Scots Conservatives but no approaches are expected until the party has established some direction in the wake of its election disaster. Whether or not to embrace home rule will be debated at the Conservative's annual conference in Perth next month.

A party spokesman said it was "likely that many members" of the Tory party in Scotland would join a No campaign.

Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP who helped sink devolution in 1979, said he would not be joining a No campaign but if asked to address meetings would offer his rebel opinions - "Have speech and, if dates are possible, will travel."

On the Government's two questions, Mr Dalyell would say `No' to a Parliament but `Yes' to tax varying powers. Without powers to tax, he said, the Parliament would be a talking shop and end in a "frustrated fiasco".