Scottish sceptics won over by Blair

Tony Blair appealed to a suspicious Scottish Labour Party Conference yesterday to "have faith in New Labour" and work for a government that would "make a difference" to the lives of everyone.

Delegates to the party conference in Inverness largely gave him the benefit of the doubt after a wide-ranging keynote speech in which he denounced John Major's administration as "a government in a state of decay".

A senior Westminster party insider said after a standing ovation for the Labour leader: "This is the toughest Labour audience you can find - and he won them over." The Scottish party has been notoriously most resistant to the Blair modernisation programme.

But the Labour leader tugged delegates' emotions in his opening paragraph, saying: "Next week will be the first anniversary of the killings in Dunblane. The horror of what happened still stops me in my tracks whenever I think about it. I will never forget standing in that gym. I will never forget the parents of those children, their bravery, their dignity and their terrible loss.

"We took action in Parliament to limit handguns. But not enough. And after the 1st of May, if elected, we will return to this issue. And this time there will be a free vote to ban all handguns."

Recalling that in 1964 Harold Wilson launched his general- election campaign in Inverness with an historic declaration that Labour set up a Highlands and Islands Development Board, he added: "Labour fulfilled that promise.

"This time I make a larger promise. We will legislate for a Scottish Parliament in the first year of a new Labour government. To deliver that promise, to ensure there is no doubt about our mandate from the Scottish people, we will hold a referendum as soon as possible after coming to office."

The Labour leader pledged: "I will be here campaigning for a yes vote in that referendum. There will be two questions. I will be campaigning for two yes answers.

"That Scottish Parliament can deliver better services for the people of Scotland. We will be turning back the tide of the centralised state and sharing power with the people."

The Labour leader also addressed the SNP and the Tories, arguing: "You both say there are only two options: status quo or separation; no change or destruction of the United Kingdom. I say that is an affront to our wit, intelligence and history. There is a better way. It is devolution and we will take it."

Mr Blair's main message to doubting delegates was: "There is nothing that makes me more angry than when people say there's no difference between the parties. That we're all the same. In Scotland this charge is especially absurd."

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