Labour's slippery offering to the people of Scotland

Omitting detail is a kind of deceit. It represents a lack of trust in the voters that encourages reciprocal mistrust
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"How will you vote?" "Don't know yet. You?" "Not sure."

I heard - and had - the same conversation more times than I can now recall last weekend in Scotland, travelling from one side of the country to the other, meeting friends, family and strangers. The good news is that there is a debate going on about the biggest constitutional shake-up since 1707.

Less encouraging for the Scotland Forward campaigners is the degree of uncertainty among voters, while opponents of the proposed legislation are daring to look around, finding there are more of them than they thought.

So what's the problem? Is the electorate experiencing a form of pre-nuptial nerves - gazing into a devolved future with chilly apprehension, as the full force of the implications of going it alone strike home? Not exactly. The full implications are not available. By choosing to hold a referendum before, rather than after, the White Paper proposals have been debated in Parliament, the Government has short-changed the people of Scotland twice over.

First, the vital pith and detail of how a devolved Scotland's parliament and institutions will work is not being offered or discussed. Instead, the Government has sent out illustrated pamphlets which they claim will answer all possible queries.

They do not, as the unquenchably inconvenient member for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, demonstrated to a packed public meeting in Perth this week.

He selected a detail in the pamphlet with significant implications for the majority of voters in Scotland - under a devolved tax system, "savings and dividends will not be affected". What exactly does that mean, Dalyell asked? What about rental income from an investment property? What about personal pensions or annuity schemes? What about a widow's income from the trust fund established by her husband to ensure lifelong security?

These questions hardly resonate beside the intoxicating "Wha's like us?" rhetoric of younger and louder campaigners, but they represent the kind of burrs and thorns that may soon impede the smooth progress of legislation introduced on the dubious mandate of a putative Yes-Yes vote on 11 September.

Tam Dalyell's own resistance to devolution is well recorded. From his dissident position, he now campaigns for a new dispensation that will endure and last. If it must be, he argues, let it be good. If it is not good and not seen to be good, he says, frustration with a poor parliament will lead straight to the slippery slope to full independence that Labour's strange new bed-mate, the Scottish National Party, devoutly hopes for and quietly expects. But the detail he asks for will not be forthcoming before the referendum vote. The Government's focus is now on achieving its desired Yes-Yes vote. And therein lies the second betrayal of respect for and trust in the people of Scotland.

Instead of considered policy proposals, hammered out on the anvil of parliamentary scrutiny, voters are being offered the kind of propaganda campaign that Labour has proved itself so adept at mounting. So the Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, probably the only member of the Cabinet who commands equal respect in London and in Scotland (notwithstanding the serious jolt to his equilibrium from the McMaster/Graham affair), sees no harm in dressing up in a donkey-jacket and hard hat to promote the Yes-Yes campaign - presumably hoping to appeal to Scotland's work-hungry construction workers.

Should we now look forward to Harriet Harman dressed as a tax-inspector, Peter Mandelson as a fisherman (without portfolio) and Mr Blair himself in a headmaster's mortar, wielding chalk (and tawse?), each wooing the targeted constituency that focus groups have indicated need that personal nudge to get them to the ballot box in the right mood?

We are becoming familiar with Labour's presentation techniques. The apparent openness of policy-making was represented by The Road to the Manifesto document. The membership endorsement of that glossy booklet was defined as a "mandate" for subsequent policy innovations not made explicit in the original document - the introduction of tuition fees, for instance, and the Bank of England's enhanced control over interest rates.

In themselves, such unadvertised policy changes may or may not be welcomed. What matters is that they were not clearly explained in advance of the May poll. The suspicion that all manner of unforeseen changes to the contents of the White Paper Scotland's Parliament will be introduced on the back of the referendum result "mandate", is well-founded.

Omitting detail is a kind of deceit. However worthy the cause, it represents a lack of trust in the voters that encourages reciprocal mistrust. To embark on the greatest shift in the governance of the United Kingdom without a whole-hearted accord between government and the people hints at albatross days ahead. Mutual trust must be the order of the day. So, when the member for Renfrewshire West is suspended for, among other sins, working with "a known opponent of the Labour Party" on the same day that Mr Dewar shares a Yes-Yes campaign launch platform with the leader of the Scottish National Party, the voters of Scotland can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow.

For long-standing home rule supporters, the abandonment of the late John Smith's commitment to devolution by the introduction of a referendum was seen as a betrayal. In fact, winning the support of the people via a referendum may well be the best way of testing the "settled will" of the people of Scotland.

But asking the voters to support untested proposals - an exercise unprecedented among the civilised Western democracies - smacks of the kind of manipulation that this Government practised so effectively in opposition. And reducing the debate to the level of simplistic photo-opportunities and, worse, a black-and-white, Tory-bashing duel of slogans, risks promoting apathy in the short term, and disillusion thereafter.

How am I going to vote? I don't know, yet. And this campaign is not helping me to decide.