How can Labour stop Scotland slipping out of the British state?

On the rise of the SNP
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The Independent Online
IT'S SOMEHOW difficult to say the words "Peter Mandelson" and "Scottish politics" in the same breath. Not many politicians are more closely connected in the public mind with that most potentially Scot-repellent of modernising Labour traits, the relentless pursuit of electoral support in Middle England. But there he was in Leith last night, standing in for Donald Dewar, in a speech to top civil servants and private sector managers. Predictably enough, he was beating the drum for a Blairite approach to the machinery and presentation of government.

Not surprisingly: the Labour Party in Scotland has had a bad few months. Large swathes of the press have been relentlessly hostile to the Government and, in a highly personal way, towards Dewar, its sometimes embattled seeming Scottish Secretary. The party's highly publicised internal problems have taken their toll on morale. There have been mutterings in Labour circles on both sides of the border that Donald Dewar, by any standards one of Blair's outstanding Cabinet ministers, has proved brilliant at winning the war - the referendum campaign and the Commons passage of the Scotland bill - but is finding it, like Winston Churchill, more difficult to win the peace.

Certainly, if any single Scottish politician is on a roll just now it's Alex Salmond, the leader of the pro-independence SNP. A MORI poll for the Mail on Sunday found 36 per cent of electors expected to vote SNP in next year's Scottish Parliament elections, compared with 42 per cent for Labour.The support for independence is, on the face of it, more starling still: a total of 47 per cent opted for "a fully independent Scotland". And 34 per cent of electors claimed to believe "Tony Blair was not in touch with the needs of the people." Exploiting the threat to the union, the leading Scottish Tory Malcolm Rifkind - whose own party, trailing at 9 per cent and also trying to stem losses to the SNP - has called for an an alliance in defence of the Union. Provoking, contrary to reports, a dusty answer from Scottish Office ministers, one of whom, Brian Wilson, said yesterday that Rifkind's party had done more to "foster separatism in 18 years than Alex Salmond will do in a lifetime".

Some of the reasons for this apparent instability are familiar. In Scotland, as not yet in England, there is an identifiable opposition and it is the SNP. The highly publicised issue of Sean Connery's famous non-knighthood did not figure in the poll as a reason for criticising Labour. The top five reasons cited were "performance in general"; NHS waiting lists; "disabled benefit cuts" "tax increases/budget" and "education cuts". What's more, the Faustian bargain made between the SNP and the Labour Party during the referendum campaign, in which the representatives of the the two parties appeared on joint platforms while taking diametrically opposite views of whether an independent Scotland was desirable, no doubt played its part in legitimising the SNP in the minds of dissident Labour voters.

At its most extreme the trend could continue; the proportional electoral system is designed, probably deliberately, to make it almost impossible for the SNP to win an overall majority. But it might be able to become its largest single party, and then attempt to lure the Liberal Democrats - many of whose potential Members of the Scottish Parliament are not as unremittingly hostile to Scottish nationalism as their Westminster-based leadership - into a coalition that would capture the new Scottish executive. And once in power, would such a coalition be able to resist a referendum on independence? Followed by the break-up of Britain the one outcome which Labour repeatedly told the Scottish electorate during the referendum campaign that creation of the Scottish parliament would avoid.

All this should provoke deep thought - but not panic. Salmond is a shrewd and persuasive politician. When you listen to him saying unionism no longer has the logic it had in the age of empire, or flirting with an independent Scotland entering EMU before the rest of the UK, or arguing for Scotland as a Celtic tiger on the model of the Irish republic, it's possible to imagine that he might just persuade the Scottish people. I happen to think he is profoundly wrong - not just because the breakup of the UK would sabotage its international clout in the EU or in the UN, or because the rebranding of Britain would be impossible without a Britain to rebrand. But because the sum - cultural, political, and social - of the Anglo-Scottish union is much greater than its parts. However, this doesn't mean he shouldn't be taken seriously.

The Government anyway has the means of protecting the union. First low politics. If there's electoral reform for Westminster, it's inconceivable that Paddy Ashdown, his dream realised, would allow his Scottish party to make common cause with the SNP against Labour. It's already looking as if the SNP leadership has erred by suggesting that it might seek an independence referendum vote in the first parliament. Jim Wallace, the Scottish LibDem leader has said his party would not prop up an SNP administration in such circumstances. Secondly, the polling figures on independence should be treated with caution. The Strathclyde University psephologist John Curtice points out that if you ask the question differently - for example "Do you want to see Scotland leave the UK" - you get a very different answer.

But there is also a comfort for the Scottish Office in the figures showing that socio-economic factors are those most frequently cited as reasons for discontent. It is tempting to think this shows that Scots are naturally old Labour, and Labour is suffering from the same dilemma as confronted the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. Do we make concessions to nationalism, or simply - and perhaps self-destructively - export Thatcherism/ Blairism in ever larger doses to the Scots? Tempting but wrong. To take just one example, the [Scottish] Chancellor's Budget would allay the fears of many voters in Scotland if only much of the Scottish media could be persuaded to turn away from the national question long enough to point out that it is a genuinely redistributive and Scot-friendly measure.

Yes, English politicians need to start taking Scottish politics, and its specialness, much more seriously than they do at present. But the Scottish Labour party, which is anyway in serious need of an overhaul, needs to remember that the economic policies pursued in Westminster can now benefit them too. The Scottish Parliament is a hugely important event. But it may just be that the Scots need to think about it a little less, the English a little more.