More to come from the `auld country'

Tony Blair has won the Clause IV vote but not Scottish hearts and minds, argues John Arlidge
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Tony Blair's Clause IV triumph over traditionalists in the Scottish Labour party at Inverness yesterday is his most radical act of modernisation yet. It is much more than a simple victory for party modernisers. The narrow pro-reform vote marks a key shift in Scottish politics - the moment Scotland, the home of "old Labour", signed up for Mr Blair's "new Labour" programme.

Ever since he became party leader, Scotland has provided Mr Blair with his sternest challenges. At the Blackpool party conference last year, Jim Mearns, the Glasgow Maryhill delegate, set the tone for Scottish opposition to the leadership's Clause IV proposals. Alex Falconer, the Mid-Scotland MEP in Brussels, and the leaders of the Glasgow-based Campaign for Socialism, soon joined the fray with newspaper advertisements and articles, urging constituency parties to submit pro-Clause IV motions to the party conference in Inverness. More than 20 of them did.

Yesterday, however, it was a motion from the public sector union Unison, which was backed by leaders of the Scottish and UK parties, that triumphed. Delegates agreed that Clause IV, Labour's historic commitment to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, had to be re-worded to reflect new Labour's "fundamental aims and values in language that is relevant to people today".

Until the last few hours before the conference opened, the result was in doubt. On the eve of the annual gathering, however, the Scottish executive, which had earlier split 16-16 on the issue, gave a lead when it voted 18-12 in favour of reform. In a country where Mr Blair, himself a Scot, is often jokingly dismissed as the first English leader of the Labour party since Michael Foot, he has won an important victory.

But one vote does not change a political culture and Mr Blair may find that the "auld country" has some nasty political shocks in store. Scotland largely survived the rigours of the "Thatcher revolution", and its history of strong state intervention, especially in housing, education and health, has created an enduringly collectivist national philosophy. The recent outcry over state funding for the collapsed Healthcare International hospital in Clydebank confirmed the strength of Scottish hostility to the private sector.

The reality is that many in the party who yesterday supported Mr Blair's pro-reform proposals did so reluctantly. After 16 years piling up massive majorities north of the border only to see continued Tory victories in the south, the Scottish Labour party is desperate for power. Party members support Mr Blair because they think he can win.

As one delegate said yesterday: "For me, Tony Blair remains an English politician who does not understand and seems to want to ignore what makes Scotland different from other parts of Britain. With John Smith, we knew where we stood. He was a Scot with a Scottish seat. His commitment to things that mean a lot to Scots - public ownership of the utilities, of the railways, a Scottish parliament - was unqualified. Those attitudes appealed to working-class Scots as much as to middle-class Scots.

"But with Blair there is a lingering doubt that cherished Scottish commitments would be dumped if they became too troublesome. The recent murmuring over whether a Scottish parliament would have tax-raising powers was worrying. For now, I, and many others, will support him because it looks like he can win where Labour has failed in the past - in England. But my support is qualified."

For Mr Blair, then, success at the next general election is the price of the continued support of Scots. As one party worker put it: "To persuade us to ditch our principles in order to win will only work if we do just that - win." For Mr Blair and the Scottish Labour party itself, the consequences of failure at the next general election could be catastrophic.

Political commentators north of the border say that if Labour did lose the election, the backlash could be enough to force the Scottish party to split from Walworth Road. James Mitchell, senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University, said: "People in the Labour movement have put up with a lot in the past, and you could argue that if the party can survive Neil Kinnock, then it can survive anything. But Tony Blair is attempting to do something that his predecessors never even dreamt of. He is successfully persuading the party to change the attitudes that have shaped its identity in the land of its birth, by making the Clause IV debate an issue not of principle, but of electoral strategy. In Scotland he will only get away with it if he can deliver a majority in a Westminster parliament and then a Scottish parliament."

The price of failure in Scotland is potentially greater than in England because disgruntled Labour voters north of the border have an alternative political home. After the general election defeats of 1987 and 1992, there was a surge in support for the nationalist wing of the Scottish Labour party. Now, with the Scottish National Party enjoying its most successful electoral period since the mid-Seventies, Labour supporters facing the prospect of another five years of Tory government in 1996 may make common cause with the left-of-centre nationalists.

For now, with Labour and Mr Blair himself winning record opinion poll ratings in Scotland, support for new Labour looks secure. But although it may have put its name under the new Labour banner, old Labour is not dead, just watching and waiting.