Scotland the thwarted Rule

Tony Blair says he is committed to the early establishment of an Edinburgh parliament. But Ian Bell argues that he has changed his mind and now intends to sabotage home rule
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The Independent Online
Let us pretend, just for the sake of argument, that Tony Blair is not entirely trustworthy. Let us assume, just as a bit of fun, the insultingly ridiculous: that the Labour leader could ever be capable of saying one thing while intending the opposite. Then let us consider devolution.

Scotland, we may guess, is not the word carved on Mr Blair's heart,but its future is a subject close to that magnificent organ, or so he says. The leader is committed to the speedy creation of a Scottish parliament for several reasons. First, it is the unfinished business of John Smith, his honoured predecessor. Secondly, it coheres with his ambitions for wider constitutional reform. Most important of all, a majority of Scots want it, and want it badly.

So far, so good. Scotland is not a place where Blair needs to win many hearts or (there are a few) minds. It is solidly Labour, if generally of the ancien variety. Given even a modest majority, Prime Minister Tony could impose a three-line whip on a one-line Scotland bill and encounter only modest protests from a few Tory Scots. (Sane Scottish Conservatives, it is worth pointing out, regard an Edinburgh parliament as the best chance available of restoring their fortunes.)

Threats of a rebellion from their lordships need not be taken seriously. Were things otherwise the entire Labour programme - the reform of the upper house in particular - would be at the mercy of the gerontocracy. No one believes that. Grumbling English Labour MPs would meanwhile be sent to trial by loyalty oath, much as Scottish "rebels" (guilty of rebelling in favour of party policy) have faced recently. In any case, England can have regional government if it wishes: what, precisely, is the beef?

And so, at the twitch of a magic wand, our prince could do just what he says he wants to do. The Opposition would oppose, because oppositions do, but democracy would be served, government improved, and the fabric of the British state given some overdue, near-invisible mending. The Scots might even be grateful, though don't bank on it.

But none of this will happen, for reasons familiar and bizarre. First, Blair decided, without consulting his Scottish tribes (there's devolution for you), that a referendum was necessary. Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson had the very same notion, all on his own, but whether he had it before or after the leader made his decision is a point best left to parapsychologists.

For good measure, Blair announced that a matter this weighty deserved two questions, not one, three, or 33. The proposal that a Scottish parliament be permitted to vary the rate of tax by up to 3p in the pound was so important - unlike, say, Chancellor Brown's first budget - that it required its own question. All this, said loyalists confident of the public's supreme indifference to the workings of the constitution, would "entrench" devolution. Naturally, it would also confound the Tories.

The trouble is, they don't sound too confounded. Some have had the gall to suggest that Blair has acquired cold feet, that he doesn't want the tax power, may not even want the parliament, and that it was no accident that he confused the issue in masterful style. Worse, a significant portion of the Scottish Labour Party has been drawn to the same, shamefully disloyal conclusion, belatedly realising that shadow chancellor Brown has a thing about income tax.

But people get uneasy about opposing referenda; it's not done. Tories who would never dream of offering Scots any sort of plebiscite (votes against the poll tax had to be registered by means of court orders, you'll recall) now enjoy asking why Labour's rebels are afraid of facing the people. If a parliament without taxation powers is better suited to Legoland than Edinburgh, why not put tax to the vote?

It is one of those arguments that sounds valid until you ask yourself why no one thought of it before. The simple answer, dishonest or not, is that some politicians never, ever do anything so stupid. There have been no referenda on VAT, Trident, the monarchy, MPs' pay or anything else about which the public might turn out to be a touch sceptical. Everyone accepts that governments need revenue; everyone wishes they would find someone else to supply it. In any political sense the tax question is a dumb question.

We are supposed to believe that Blair thinks otherwise. He promises he will campaign "personally" (there's another way?) for the so-called "double yes". He even thinks he can deliver that outcome. Remember, Tony Blair never promises what he cannot deliver, and he never says anything he does not mean. He said so.

Back among the rebels, there is no such inspiring confidence. Having accepted the principle of a referendum (see how they bounce), they have been working throughout the summer to ensure that it contains only one simple question. After all, how many Scots remain who have not heard Labour say it wants an Edinburgh parliament with taxation powers? Vote for the parliament and you vote for the tax.

Given his remarkable candour in all things, and despite the ill-feeling the issue has caused in the party, it is hard to understand why Blair does not agree, but he does not. Last week, however, he stated candidly that if the Scottish Labour executive overturned the two-question plan he would overrule them. (How much devolution can one party stand?) He didn't actually say why, but later he made a few telephone calls, just to be on the safe side.

Thus invigorated, the executive met at Stirling at the weekend to get themselves out of the hole their leader had hewn. Then they commenced to dig, and kept on digging until they struck compromise. That, at least, is what they are now calling it, mostly because they have no choice.

It is a brilliant idea (if you happen to be Tory). It is typically Labour (if you happen to be a Nationalist). It is moving evidence of how rebellious some people can be when their principles are at stake (but not if they are members of Labour's Scottish executive)! The two-question plebiscite remains: Blair wins. But there is a twist. Now a new Scottish parliament must on no account use its tax powers until it has called yet a further referendum.

Which is to say that Blair and his colleagues, desperate for devolution, have erected five (count them) hurdles in the way of a tax-raising Scottish parliament: a vote in a general election, a referendum question on the principle of home rule, a vote on taxation, elections to a Scottish parliament, and then another referendum on the use of the tax power, just to make doubly sure it never becomes an issue in anyone's mind.

This mind, for one, is to be entered for an Arts Council boggling award. Blair has called the executive's decision "mature", leaving us to wonder what he really thought of the policy established by John Smith. Once there was a Scottish Question; now there is a clutch of quibbles, and John Major is making the most of it.

The constitution is one of the Prime Minister's pet issues, one which (he imagines) helped him win the last general election. In Glasgow for a fund-raising dinner this week, he was prompt with his alliterative insults, describing Labour's plans as a "steeplechase of stupidity". He refused to say if the Tories would accept devolution should Scots vote for it (Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth has said they would) but managed a fairly effective demolition of a "botched" scheme. Given the Tories' standing in the polls (15 per cent) this amounts, however, to little more than harmless fun, at least in Scottish terms.

Then again, as both Major and the Scottish National Party realise, Labour's executive has done their work for them. A gift horse is running in the stupidity stakes. In what is fast beginning to resemble a repeat of the Seventies, the Nationalists are gaining ground while Labour falters, having piled on six points in the latest System 3 poll - a poll taken, moreover, before last weekend's debacle in Stirling. Labour are still 19 points clear (48 to the SNP's 29) but the Nationalists could not have asked for a better time, or excuse, to stage one of their periodic revivals.

It is possible, just about, to describe this comedy as a thing of simple errors. Certainly the fact that the fate of the entire devolution campaign, not to mention the credibility of the Scottish Labour Party, was left in the hands of one prospective parliamentary candidate looks like a fairly big mistake in anyone's terms. Nevertheless, it was Mohammad Sarwar, the candidate for Govan, who alone cooked up the baffling compromise that Robertson and Blair were only too delighted to accept. What does that tell us?

At the very least, it says very little for the fabled efficiency of New Labour, never mind its grasp of political realities. More importantly, it raises some fairly profound questions about Blair's leadership. If this was an example of astuteness, Labour supporters in Scotland would probably risk being spared further outbreaks of cleverness. If this was a consequence of his vaunted toughness, the people in his slipstream might begin to ask themselves just where toughness is leading them.

But there is a bigger worry, and one that is now commonplace in Scotland: that despite all he has said, the Labour leader does not always mean what he says. The chain of events since the first referendum plan was launched 10 weeks ago seems altogether too ridiculous, too uncharacteristically ham-fisted, to be accidental. Blair, many are concluding, has set himself to sabotage serious devolution.

He has probably succeeded. Given the hurdles, it seems inconceivable now that Scotland will achieve anything meaningful under a Labour government. The consequences of that fact have yet to sink in, but they will begin to do so in the weeks and months leading to the next general election. As George Robertson has been discovering this week, even Labour's famously loyal Scottish supporters have their limits. A plan that is near-impossible to explain, far less to enact, is a very bad plan.

Understandably enough, opponents have taken to describing this as a dog's breakfast. In reality, the alimentary throughput of Fido's petit dejeuner bears a closer resemblance to what Blair has deposited on Scotland's doorstep. The pup has now been sold. Next stop: Downing Street.

Ian Bell is a columnist with the 'Scotsman'