Yes, yes to a new world

Labour played good old-fashioned politics to bring in the Scottish devolution vote, but they are proud of what they have done
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The Independent Online
There was panic in Jinglin' Geordie's bar. As the polls closed in the referendum on a Scottish parliament, devolution enthusiasts voiced fears of a repeat of 1979: the turnout seemed to be low so the people might have rejected Tony Blair's Home Rule. Another national humiliation might be on the cards.

These pessimists were the officials of Scotland Forward, the all-party group set up to persuade voters that a "yes, yes" vote last Thursday would create a brave new world north of the border.

They need not have worried. Their majority was in the bag long before polling day. It was like a rerun of the general election. Every area voted for the principle of a Scottish parliament, and only two rejected the second proposition giving it powers over taxation. Most satisfying of all for reformist Scots, the approval for constitutional change would have surmounted the artificial threshold erected by the enemies of devolution who killed off hopes of limited Home Rule nearly 20 years ago. The verdict was 3:1 for a parliament in Edinburgh, and not far short of 2:1 for tax- varying powers.

Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary who looks certain to become his country's first First Minister, was as ecstatic as a buttoned-up Glasgow solicitor can be. He shut his eyes and clenched his fists with what looked like passion. Alongside him at the overnight count, the Treasury minister Alistair Darling (another lawyer) retained his cool. This is not going to be a parliament of fools.

For once, Mr Blair believed the opinion polls and arranged, before the votes were counted, to return to Scotland for a victory speech on Friday morning. It was a brief affair, delivered on the steps of a granite office building off the Royal Mile, but it was pregnant with meaning. "Well done," he congratulated a small crowd. "This is a good day for Scotland, and a good day for Britain and the United Kingdom. We said 'trust the people' and we did trust the people, and the people have had the courage and the confidence to trust themselves."

He told them that their "yes" vote was a step forward in modernising the UK. "The era of big, centralised government is over," he declared. "I believe we have the chance to build a modern constitution for this country, for the United Kingdom, that will see us through into the next century, proud of our history, but determined to live in the future."

And there is more. Labour and the Scots alike are fashioning the "ice- breaker" theory, which goes like this. The pro-devolution vote will trigger a call for reform in Wales this week - though the ice is thicker there - and change that becomes wider still and wider. On the long-term agenda is the concept that political parties will work together in Scotland's parliament as they did during the Home Rule campaign. The "yah-boo" politics of Westminster will be superseded by a more consensual style of government. There will be a new breed of MP, sleaze-free and public-spirited. Regional government will bring power closer to the people. Starting with Scotland's parliament, proportional representation will become the norm - again by means of a referendum - signalling the end of minority rule by any party. The House of Lords will be rid of its hereditary peers, and true democracy will reign.

These are the hopes and ambitions expressed by politicians and commentators north of the border over the past few days. There are hardly any bounds to the euphoria created by the people's decision that 129 locally elected politicians should have control of the pounds 14bn of public money spent by the government in Scotland every year.

But before the argument gets drowned in myopic enthusiasm, it is worth recalling just how Labour won the referendum.

ONLY six weeks ago the Government's best-laid schemes almost met the fate described by Robert Burns - which went awry. The plot was for a low- key campaign, building up through August to a triumphant finale after the Prime Minister's traditional early autumn visit to the Queen at Balmoral. Then two unexpected, and wholly unrelated, deaths supervened: first the suicide of Gordon McMaster, the popular MP for Paisley South, followed by the tragedy of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The McMaster saga, with its melancholy suicide note taking the lid off the can of worms that is Labour in the west of Scotland, and accusing a fellow parliamentarian, Tommy Graham, of "smear" tactics, threatened to blow the Government completely off course. Mr Dewar failed to stave off mountain media pressure to "do something". He was dogged by questions about the affair at press conferences ostensibly about devolution. The referendum campaign was at risk of being buried in sleaze, just like the Tories' four months earlier. The Scottish Secretary demanded swift action from London. He got an inquiry into the affair by the Chief Whip, Nick Brown, and the suspension of Mr Graham - plus the immediate posting to Glasgow of the party's most experienced spin-doctor, David Hill.

Prompt action over "sleaze" halted the recovery of the "no-no" campaign. Labour then directed its fire on the opposition to reform as a last gasp by failed Tories who would not come out and fight, preferring instead to conduct hostilities by proxy through the business community. The big names of Scottish Conservatism, Ian Lang, Sir Michael Forsyth and other former ministers, were conspicuous by their absence. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary (and ex-devolutionist), waited until the eve of the poll before tootling an uncertain trumpet against the Home Rule proposals.

The death of Princess Diana brought the public campaign to a juddering halt, although Labour found ways round the self-imposed embargo on political activity. Demands by opposition figures such as Tam Dalyell, the rebel anti-devolution Labour MP, for a postponement of the referendum brought a discreet announcement that the Government felt that "though there may be sadness" the people would still wish to give their verdict on 11 September. This story-line kept the campaign moving effortlessly, and avoided charges of politicking.

The crass efforts of Jim Farry, chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, to go ahead with a soccer international against Belarus on the day of Princess Diana's funeral also played into the party's hands. An insider at Keir Hardie House, Labour's Glasgow HQ, said: "We decided we needed a dramatic intervention." David Hill telephoned the Scottish BBC and ITN evening news as it was going out live with the disclosure that Dewar and Blair had "stepped in" to force postponement of the match for 24 hours. Sources close to William Hague, the Conservative leader, later complained bitterly. "Labour milked the royal death for all it was worth."

Finally, in great secrecy, the Labour leaders convened a strategy meeting in Glasgow on the Thursday night two days before the royal funeral. It was attended by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, Donald Dewar, his deputy Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Labour's Scottish Party Secretary, and David Hill. They drew up plans for the 100 hours war starting last Sunday morning. It opened with the Prime Minister calling on the Scots to "have confidence" and go for devolution, and moved into an extraordinary photo- opportunity: Sean Connery, the film star, joined the Chancellor on a chartered motor launch crossing the Firth of Forth. More discreetly that same morning Mr Brown met small-business leaders and promised them a consultative committee to smooth any problems that devolution might bring. From that day the campaign did not look back. A senior Labour source said the intensive four-day campaign worked in the Government's favour. "We were absolutely right to say we would not move the referendum date," he said. "The people were ready. They were able to make the switch over

after a week of Diana."

So the New World was achieved by some old politics. The politicians are rather proud of what they have done, and some do see the referendum as a staging post. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, who had a good war, points out that after 2000 devolution will be the new status quo. The centrepiece of the SNP's election manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999 will be an independent Scotland. "I do expect it to be achieved in my lifetime," he insists.

Plainly this is incompatible with Labour's prospectus of limited Home Rule within the UK. And the Scottish parliament cannot change the constitutional status of Scotland. That power is reserved to Westminster. Scots MPs cannot simply walk their country out of the UK. The Scottish Office insists that devolution alters nothing in that respect.

But a Scottish parliament does give the Nationalists a more elevated platform, and it is difficult to refute their case that, the more successful the legislature, the greater the appetite for "doing more on our own". The SNP may be able to make short-term agreements with other parties on money for the health service, or schools, or roads, but it is inherently incapable of shedding its ultimate goal of independence, any more than Sinn Fein can abandon its aim of a united Ireland. The basic argument does not change. It merely moves to a larger, louder forum. The trick for Labour will be to prove that devolution is enough - that more would mean worse.

There will be time enough to see who is right. The Government believes that the Scottish parliament will be a permanent fixture. An official at the Scottish Office says: "Any move to abolish a popular, effective Scottish parliament, would be likely to lead to a constitutional crisis."

The vote has been as much a watershed for Conservatives, who lost the political argument once more. On last week's referendum showing, they would not win a single one of the 73 parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, but their votes would give them around 20 of the additional 56 seats that will be allocated to parties on a proportional representation list system. They could even form a parliamentary alliance with the SNP on issues such as business tax cuts.

There was little by way of public celebration in the Scottish capital after last week's historic referendum. Rhapsody was not in the air. But nor had the quiet sense of satisfaction of John Smith's "settled will of the Scottish people" been given final, full expression. Just how settled it really has become will be the most contentious issue facing the world's newest legislature.