Bruce Anderson: Suddenly we find the Union is under threat

It is now at least 50-50 that Alex Salmond will be the next Scottish First Minister
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The Independent Online

Last Wednesday in Edinburgh, there was a reception for the Scottish Territorial Army. Some of the Heidyins came up from London, the Duke of Westminster, who is the Major-General in charge of the TA, and Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister. A lot of Members of the Scottish Parliament attended, including every Scottish Nationalist MSP. But there was one notable absence. The Scottish Labour Party was nowhere to be seen.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, took the opportunity to assert his presence. He made Gerald Westminster welcome: no anti-Englishness there. He was charming to the TA officers, one of whom said: "Now I understand why the Jocks in Basra fly the Saltire [St Andrew's Cross] on their vehicles." Mr Salmond conducted himself as if he were the most senior politician in the room. Some of those watching him concluded that in a few month's time he might be.

This was not supposed to happen, which is why Gordon Brown and the Labour leadership are close to panic. Scots were demanding devolution largely because they loathed Margaret Thatcher. Give them a parliament plus a Labour government at Westminster, and they would go back to sleep. Some hope. As for sleep, John Major said that supporters of devolution were sleepwalking to independence. At the time, that seemed exaggerated. It now seems prophetic.

Labour has a number of problems in dealing with Alex Salmond. The first is telling the truth. John Reid has claimed that an independent Scotland would be more likely to come under attack from al-Qa'ida. That is not only nonsense: Dr Reid knows it to be nonsense. He ought to have learnt by now that if you are going to insult people's intelligence - by claiming, say, not to have read important papers - you must do it subtly.

Ed Balls tells the Scots that independence would cost 200,000 jobs in the financial sector. Not only is there no evidence for this, it underrates the SNP's cunning. The SNP is good at talking to the Scottish financial industry. A lot of those who work in it are chronically depressed by the sullen anti-enterprise attitude of most of the Scottish Labour movement. Mr Salmond tells them that he is a Scots free marketer's only hope. An increasing number are listening to him.

Alex Salmond is able and persuasive: much more so than Jack McConnell, the Labour First Minister. The same is true of Mr Salmond's principal lieutenants, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney. In general, SNP spokesmen are cleverer and more articulate than Labour's. The best Scottish Labour youngsters will do anything for a devolved parliament except serve in it.

To an even greater extent than in England, there has been large-scale government waste. Despite huge expenditure, health care is hardly improving while educational standards are falling and youth crime is increasing. A lot of Scots realise that they are run by the 3rd XI and resent it. A few years ago, I told a senior figure in Tony Blair's Downing Street that large numbers of MSPs would make John Prescott sound like Demosthenes. Since then, it has got worse. On the media, several Scottish Labour ministers not only sound as if they are addressing a slow-witted council tenant in Strathclyde; they sound as if they are slow-witted council tenants from Strathclyde. Fortunately, that is not yet true of the entire Scottish population.

Confronted with manifest incompetence, Gordon Brown's instinct is to brush aside the Scottish Labour Party and seize control. This will not work. The Scottish Labour leadership will not accept that it is too thick to run its own re-election campaign. Mr Brown will not get his own way.

Nor is it clear that he ought to. We know that Gordon Brown is clever. But an Institute for Britishness: that sounds like a Stalin-era foundation now gathering dust and moths in the Russian provinces. It is time that Gordon Brown thought with his much-vaunted brain and his not his great clunking fist.

It may be that he is too worried to think straight. He believes, rightly, that a bad result in Scotland would damage his credibility. Still Mr Brown has never being good at containing his frustration. Between now and May, we can expect some almighty rows.

Labour has two further related problems. The first is Tony Blair. Many of the same Scots who wanted devolution because they hated Mrs Thatcher now want independence because they hate Mr Blair. They are ready to conclude that Westminster is their enemy. So Labour has to find a way of moving the argument from personality to fundamentals. It has to defend the Union.

It also has to give up trying to frighten the Scots. That has twin dangers. First, it is like warning adolescence of the dangers of prohibited substances. If you are not careful, the warnings will make the forbidden fruit sound glamorous. Second - no surprise here - it is easy to put the Scots' backs up. Before 1997, I used to urge Tory MPs who were arguing against devolution not to imply that the Scots were unfit to govern themselves. Even if such a case could be made, that would not be helpful, for it would not win over many Scots. Much better to say: "Of course Scotland could govern itself, as could England. But we do it so much better together."

It is dangerously late to defend the Union. Alone among Scottish political leaders, Alex Salmond has a strategy. He wants to form the next Scottish government, even if in coalition. He is convinced that he could do a better job than Labour's mouthless mediocrities. He would certainly talk a better job. Then, in his honeymoon period, he would pick a quarrel with London. With Gordon Brown as PM, that would not be hard. This would be followed by a referendum on independence. Even if Mr Salmond did not win, he would find it easy to cause chaos.

Alex Salmond has the patience for a long game. He has been playing it since Messrs Blair and Brown were parliamentary novices. Even when the SNP were suffering reverses, he never seemed to worry. He always repeated one phrase: "Name me a single principal opposition party which did not eventually form a government." There were long periods when the SNP seemed certain to supply the missing example: not any more. It is now at least 50-50 that Alex Salmond will be the next Scottish First Minister, with all the opportunities for mayhem which come with that office.

There are large numbers of Scots (including me) who are proud of their Scottishness, but regard the Union as a crucial part of their heritage. We now find that it is under treat. Unless the Unionist Scots raised their game, and quickly, old Clunking Fist's Institute for Britishness will open just in time to become a Museum of the Union.