NEW LABOUR VERSUS OLD LABOUR: Scotland does not belong to the modernisers

In the fourth in our series on the battle for the Labour Party, John Ar lidge outlines Tony Blair's Scottish dilemma
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Indy Politics
Tony Blair, Scots are fond of joking, is the first English leader of the Labour Party since Michael Foot. Although Mr Blair was born in Edinburgh and rarely misses an opportunity to remind voters north of the border of his Scots pedigree, the Oxfo rd-educated barrister who represents an English constituency and lives in London is the object of Scottish suspicion. His New Labour attempt to win the support of middle England confirm the fears of many traditionalists that he is abandoning the values t hat shaped Labour's policies in the land of its birth.

Scotland is the home of Old Labour. The country's history of strong state intervention, especially in housing, education and health, has created a collectivist political culture that has largely survived the Thatcher revolution. The recent outcry over state funding for the collapsed Healthcare International private hospital in Clydebank confirmed the strength of Scottish feelings.

Observers say Mr Blair does not understand Scottish politics and society. Dr James Mitchell, senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University, contrasts Mr Blair's style and approach with that of his predecessor: "John Smith was born in Argyll, wentto a local state school, was educated at Glasgow University and represented a Scottish seat. He was a deeply Scottish man who knew that for the majority of Scots - working class and middle class - the state and public provision remain very, very important. He acknowledged that there was no Scottish equivalent of the individualistic, go-it-alone Essex man and he would never have attempted to do what Tony Blair has done to Clause IV because he would have anticipated the problems reform would cause.

"Fundamentally, Mr Blair does not understand Scotland and that is why he believes, erroneously, his policies will be warmly welcomed here. He grew up on the east coast and went to one of the country's grandest fee-paying schools, Fettes College, and the n left for England. If you want to know about Scotland, these are the last places you should go."

Mr Blair's attempt to win the support of middle-class voters in English constituencies where the next election will be won may involve few risks south of the border. As party strategists point out, disgruntled Labour traditionalists are unlikely to turn in large numbers to the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. But in Scotland the Scottish National Party, enjoying its most successful electoral period since the mid-1970s, offers a strong, traditional leftist alternative.

Privately, nationalists rejoiced when Mr Blair beat John Prescott for the leadership, and recently the SNP has stepped up its attacks on him for abandoning "traditional" policies. At local elections in April the SNP will try to present itself as "real Labour".

In seeking to win a general election in England, Mr Blair could push enough Scottish voters into the arms of the nationalists to allow the Tories to pick up seats, depriving Labour of a majority at Westminster.

For now, Labour has its highest opinion poll ratings in Scotland for more than a decade, at 57 per cent. Leaders of the Scottish party insist that the Blair philosophy of strong communities helping the individual has a natural appeal to Scots. Membershi p of the Scottish party has increased by almost 4,000. Mr Blair's commitment to a Scottish parliament has also helped his popularity. But activists, in particular in the party's west coast powerbase, warn against moving too far right.

One said: "We are realists. We know that Blair has a chance of winning and after 16 years of Tory rule, winning is more important than ever - particularly when it means that Scots like Gordon Brown and Robin Cook will be in the Cabinet. But we are not prepared to sanction success at any price. The recent wobble over will-we-won't-we renationalise rail has been very unsettling. If there is continued evidence that Labour is going soft on its important commitments to collective provision, then the party here in Scotland will revolt. Tony Blair has no idea how close that day may be."

Tomorrow: Barrie Clement on strains with the unions