A century of Labour deceit and betrayal

Alex Salmond argues that the Scots must learn from history
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The Independent Online
Labour's retreats and betrayals on devolution are a century old. In 1888, Kier Hardie claimed that Scottish Home Rule was "just around the corner". In 1918, it was the third priority in the Labour manifesto, above housing, pensions and education; yet by 1927, a Labour supported Bill was talked out of Parliament to make way for a debate on "bugs, fleas and vermin". The first rigged referendum and the botched Bills of the late Seventies were followed by a decade of inaction. As recently as 1992, Labour was still claiming that a Scottish parliament would be "along in a tick".

Now in 1996, with another general election looming, Tony Blair has proved that the Scottish people cannot trust Labour to deliver. It might be said that it has been a lesson long in the learning, but this latest betrayal, and its arrogant nature, may not be shrugged off like so many before.

Consider the following:

"What happens if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, 'We say no and we are the state'? Well, we say yes and we are the people, and in the last analysis Scotland believes not in the 'Royal we' but in 'We the people.' "

These were the words of Canon Kenyon Wright, Convener of the Executive of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in March 1989, when considering both the legitimacy of the Convention and the inevitable refusal of Margaret Thatcher to pay any heed at all to Scottish opinion. Though Thatcher is away, the good canon soldiers on, now having to act as the apologist for Labour duplicity at every turn. But this week he must have begun to suspect that the strident "Royal we" that stands in the way of democracy for Scotland is now none other than that newborn admirer of "the voice we all know so well" - Mr Blair.

Yet neither Kenyon Wright nor the people of Scotland should be surprised that Mr Blair now wishes, in the words of this newspaper on Saturday, "not to praise Home Rule, but to bury it". Since that first meeting of the Convention in 1989, Labour has publicly retreated from its commitments on devolution in four key areas. These retreats have accelerated under Mr Blair's leadership, and it is now certain that he does not want any dilution of his potential power in 10 Downing Street. And that means he does not want any measure of Scottish constitutional change.

In 1992, Labour devolution policy was based on a Parliament with assigned revenues - that is, with the power to use money raised in Scotland on Scotland. That policy had been ditched by March 1995 in favour of a block grant - the allocation of resources at Westminster's whim plus the political aunt sally of the "tartan tax". Now the very question of financial power is to be placed at the centre of Mr Blair's referendum questions, thus achieving what many feel is his devious aim - the emasculation of any power devolved north of the border.

Second, Labour has abandoned parallel moves for regional assemblies in England, thus allowing the West Lothian question to re-emerge. This greatly enhances the potential for opposition to a real Scottish parliament on Labour's English backbenches and within a Labour Cabinet.

Third, Labour has somersaulted on sovereignty. Labour's 49 Scottish MPs, all nominally members of the Convention, can no longer declare "we are the people and we say yes" because Labour has now rejected the rights of the people of Scotland in favour - yet again - of the alien constitutional notion of the absolute rights of the Westminster parliament.

And finally, the referendum retreat goes directly against the principle (again enunciated by Kenyon Wright) that "any scheme we put forward must be consensus, the highest common factor of our common thinking, which gives no political grouping or party everything it wants".

Even if the Convention had accepted a referendum in its original discussions - which it did not - it would not have been the type now being foisted on them. In 1992, Labour was talking about a three-way, multi-option referendum. Until last week, no one in Scotland had seriously proposed, or even discussed, a consultative referendum that had only one choice! Labour wants a rigged referendum sinisterly similar to that of 1979, and one that is designed to evade Tory pressure in Middle England and retain control at Westminster.

There is as much similarity between this Blair Trap and a real consultative referendum as there is between genuine democracy and the old East European version with only one candidate and one party.

This time the "Royal we" from the Labour leader has been met with anger and resentment at the very heart of the Labour Party in Scotland, and with an increasing certainty in Scotland that at the top of Labour in London there is no commitment to Scotland's historic and urgent claims.

The Convention is now redundant. There is only one way to repair Scottish democracy and to restore the beating heart of a parliament to this ancient nation. Scots must empower themselves, with the strength of their own legal and constitutional right to popular sovereignty. They must choose the only option on which they can have a clear and absolute say. They must decide to become an independent nation and have done with deceit, trickery, rigged referendums and the well-meaning but half-baked hopes of those who will not learn from history.

The author is leader of the Scottish National Party.