Scots look for new answers to old questions

North of the border, anger at Blair could turn the nationalists into allies of the Tories.
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Indy Politics
Now that the dust has settled over Labour's broken promise on Scottish devolution without recourse to a referendum, it appears Tony Blair has won the battle. But it is not all quiet on the northern front. In Glasgow's Halt bar, just down the road from Labour's Scottish head office, one party worker drowning sorrow and disappointment by the pint said: "Sure, he's got away with it. But what can we do. There's too much invested in him. But Christ, what a can of worms he's opened up."

Today John Major goes to Dumfries to appear for the first time before the Scottish Grand Committee, set up by the Government as an attempt to head off demands for home rule.

In 1992, when Mr Major won the general election, Labour north of the border was a demoralised force. The Scottish constitutional convention, which had drawn up an agreed blueprint for the assembly, became a chain gang of cross-party idealists consigned for five more years of hard labour. It is ironic that only days after Mr Blair denied them any hope of parole, John Major has taken pity and thrown them a rock.

One insider at the Scottish Trades Union Congress office in Glasgow, still seeing red from the Labour leader's unilateral declaration, said: "Blair thought he'd spotted a weakness and dealt with it. But now he'll have to deal with everything that's been lying silent."

Labour senior officials in Scotland have now quietly arranged a series of tutorials to supply answers for the coming questions. While the official party effort will focus on a summer advertising campaign to sell a "double- yes" to the twin issues of taxation and a referendum, behind the hard sell will be panic that New Labour will need new answers to old questions.

After 1992, activists from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists formed Scotland United. It had one aim: to force a multi- option referendum that would ask the Scottish electorate whether they wanted an assembly, full independence or the status quo. John Major ignored them, and they fizzled away.

But Mike Russell, now the Chief Executive of the SNP and a founding United member, said simply that he "wouldn't be playing on Blair's pitch". Outside the convention and outside the "double-yes" campaign, the Nationalists may find themselves in the awkward position of being allies of the Tories.

Behind both Blair's unilateralism and the Government's decision to hand back the Stone of Destiny after 700 years, lurks the figure of Mr Forsyth. Since he took office, he has turned the army of civil servants in the Scottish Office into his own campaigning team.

Without any real movement in the opinion polls, senior news executives at BBC Scotland are privately "frightfully impressed with Forsyth", believing he has "Labour on the run". If that information has travelled south Mr Blair may have thought he had to act quickly.

Mr Forsyth is clearly on a roll, first having opened up the tax debate, and now with the return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland. Even the normally guarded Scotsman newspaper was yesterday talking of him as a future leader of the Tory party.

But doing the rounds among the Labour disappointed is a story that appears to show Mr Blair was right after all. It says Mr Forsyth was recently praised for his "Tartan Tax" campaign. by a journalist who is alleged to have said: "Michael, you may well win this campaign". Mr Forsyth is said to have replied: "Christ, I hope not. Then I'd have nothing left to say."