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Deborah Orr

Deborah Orr: Change is what the Scots want too

Glenrothes is not about the Union, even if Gordon Brown likes to think it is

By astounding coincidence, tomorrow's Westminster by-election in Glenrothes has been entirely overshadowed by another contest in another country. Labour usually likes to set a quick date for by-elections. But when the Labour MP John MacDougal died, of asbestos-related lung cancer, all concerned in the decision must have been delighted at their own cleverness in opting to schedule the Fife poll some way ahead, and in the same week as the US Presidential climax.

Why would Labour want another Glasgow East, after all, with the London media crawling all over every possible voting issue, and proclaiming the by-election as another Great Test for Gordon Brown's leadership, and indeed for the future of the entire Labour movement?

Nevertheless Glenrothes is a significant test, in the short term anyway, because the result will indicate how much or how little voters really have retrenched since the credit crash. Back in the summer, a confident Scotland relished the opportunity to give Labour in Westminster a Glasgow kiss. Now Labour is hoping that the failure of flamboyant optimism in the financial markets has reintroduced some caution to the Caledonian breast-on-the-street as well. They do say it's an ill wind.

Yet as Glenrothes borders Brown's own constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, the very fact that the by-election is still such an open competition is a powerful reminder of just how fragile Brown's Labour remains. Despite the downward management of expectation, Brown is so nervous about the threat from the SNP that he has broken with convention and campaigned in person in Glenrothes. Even while he has been playing the global economic statesman to the hilt, busily embracing the prospect of Wahaabist cash in Saudi Arabia, his wife Sarah has been hitting the stump as his proxy. Goodness, that woman is a trouper.

Labour is so desperate to maintain Glenrothes that yesterday it sent its doughty mascot of old Labour values, John Prescott, to mount a final appeal. Poor old Prescott has for a long time now been placed on the podium, like the world's least appetising dancing girl, to represent unchanging values as the working men's club got refitted as a branch of Spearmint Rhino around him. The entertaining irony of the Glenrothes by-election is that its result will indicate exactly how much northern comfort the Spearmint Rhino that is New Labour can derive from its own recent collapse.

In Scotland, as in the rest of the country, Brown's popularity been increased by the credit crash that he helped to nurture as Chancellor, not least because the Scottish Government's SNP first minister, Alex Salmond was so keen to hang out in the fleshpots himself. Salmond is mildly derided now for suggesting that Scotland, alone, could join the "arc of prosperity" represented by such gung-ho small economies as Ireland – the first country in the EU to move into recession as a consequence of the crisis – and Iceland – the nation whose capital is now, quip the funsters, £2.79.

Salmond, as a former economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland, is now derided more seriously as the knowledgeable insider who posited that Scotland's banking sector could be the motor of independent economic growth. Both of the banks that he cited as proof that Scotland punched so far above its weight, that by rights it ought by now to resemble an emirate, are independent themselves no more.

Now, HBOS and RBS are part-owned by the hated Union's taxpayer, in a £31.5bn bail-out that Scotland, quite clearly, could not have borne on its own. HBOS, formerly the Bank of Scotland, is now owned by Lloyds TSB, which is making confident promises of money-saving job losses that Scots fear they may be bearing the brunt of. RBS revealed yesterday that the value of its assets fell by £6.1bn this year, and "regretfully" presented plans to offer new shares. If they attract no private investors, and are bought by the Government, then the taxpayer will become the bank's largest single shareholder.

Salmond has some difficulty in his own constituency as well. He may enjoy prating on about localism and putting the Scottish people first. But when Aberdeenshire's local council vetoed Donald Trump's plan to build a £1bn golfing complex on some protected coastal sand dunes on the Menie Estate near Balmedie, the Scottish Government called in the project, overturned the decision, and yesterday announced that despite vociferous local and environmental opposition, the plan would go ahead.

Salmond insists that he has personally remained aloof from the decision-making process, although he does say that this is no time for Scotland to be turning down a project that will create 6,000 local jobs. The stance is not in the least out of keeping with Salmond's stated desire aggressively to attract inward investment, and in Glenrothes the announcement will do the SNP no harm at all. But it is politically difficult for Salmond nevertheless, to be seen backing Donald Trump against Michael and Sheila Forbes, whose home is slap bang in the middle of the tycoon's land, and who say they are yielding to clearance for nobody.

There is paradox here too, because deeply engaged local activists are what Salmond has, and Brown does not. The SNP has had no difficulty in flooding Glenrothes with grassroots campaigners, while Labour no longer has committed local members on whom to call. That's why Brown and his wife cannot risk staying away themselves.

Meanwhile, Glenrothes is already is represented by a SNP MSP, and is already locally governed by an SNP-headed coalition with the Liberal Democrats. If the Westminster constituency, in these peculiarly troubled times, does fall to the SNP as well, then it means something rather strange. It means that the party of independence remains a credible alternative for Scots even as the promise of independence shrivels. It's not about the Union, even if Brown likes to think that it is. It's simply about change.