Robertson in stormy ride on devolution

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Indy Politics
Labour's Scottish affairs spokesman was given a rough ride in the first meeting of the cross-party Scottish constitutional convention since Tony Blair last week announced that Labour would hold a referendum on devolution.

At the meeting in Edinburgh, which George Robertson himself described as "stormy", Labour was accused by the Liberal Democrats of placing a "great strain on the home rule clause". Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, welcomed what he called "the assurances" Mr Robertson had given on devolution. However he said Labour remained "on trial" and said that "the home-rule clause cannot readily withstand another unilateral bombshell of this kind."

Mr Robertson and Labour's organising secretary in Scotland, Jack McConnell, were effectively cross-examined by a hostile prosecution. One observer who attended the meeting said that despite Mr Robertson's reaffirmation that the Labour leadership remained committed devolutionists, recent events meant the party had lost the trust of many in the convention executive. With the convention held together by a light political glue of trust and co-operation, there will now be doubts over what role it holds. By stepping over the agreement signed last November, Mr Blair may have consigned the convention to the role of lobby organisation rather than influential policy grouping.

Esther Robertson, the convention's co-ordinating officer, said: "George Robertson got a hard time and no punches were pulled." However, Mr Robertson seems to have won back some ground. Mrs Robertson said: "Nobody doubts George Robertson's commitment to devolution. He clearly wants to be the Scottish Secretary who delivers a Scottish parliament."

The Scottish National Party (SNP) tried to take full advantage of what one Labour source in London dismissed as "some local difficulty". The SNP launched a poster campaign in Scotland with the message: "Tony doesn't give a XX for devolution". The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, said: "People in Scotland no longer believe a word New Labour says on the Scottish constitution."

The XXs refer to Labour's pledge to campaign with the convention for a "double yes" vote on the two referendum questions, namely the parliament itself and secondly the separate question of whether it should have tax- raising powers.

Labour's own view of its performance in front of the convention was that this "valuable opportunity" had been successful and that the Blair tactics had been accepted.

From comments yesterday the Labour leadership in Scotland believes they may have weathered the worst of the devolution row and are privately celebrating their belief that they have disarmed the "tartan tax" campaign waged by Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland.

On Friday, when John Major speaks in Dumfries on devolution, Labour and the SNP will have their first opportunity to battle over the new territory laid out by Mr Blair. Crucially it will also be the first opportunity for Labour's dissidents to show their potentially disruptive hand.

Support for the Tories in Scotland has jumped to 15 per cent, its highest since February 1994, according to a System Three opinion poll for the Glasgow Herald. There was no obvious reason for the 3 per cent rise.

Alex Salmond, page13

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