Seven days that exposed the black hole at the heart of Scottish politics

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The Independent Online
Whenever I drive across the Kingston Bridge, which carries Glasgow's urban motorway across the Clyde, I pass a building that makes me shiver slightly. It is not the ugliness of it, for its weathered stone mass is crowned by an interesting cupola. It is the thought of what once happened there.

This is the Co-operative Hall on Dalintober Street. Here, more than 20 years ago, I watched Scottish Labour being forced by party leaders in London to reverse its policy on devolution. Because I was as certain then as I am now that Scotland should have a parliament, I should have been delighted that the Scottish Executive's resistance to devolution was being broken. But my main feeling was shame.

In his book The Battle for Scotland, Andrew Marr remarks that " 'Dalintober Street' ... is generally intoned with a mixture of awe and regret, as if it were the scene of some Chicago gangland massacre."Two months before, in June 1974, the Labour Party in Scotland had defied Harold Wilson by rejecting his plans for a Scottish assembly as "constitutional tinkering". Up from London came the heavies, and with the help of their Scottish trade union allies they thumped and threatened the Scottish party into submission. The hall stank of humiliation and forced consciences, and the trauma of Dalintober Street lasted for many years.

Just over a week ago, the Scottish Executive of the party made a complete fool of itself by proposing yet another referendum on tax-raising powers for a Scottish parliament - a provision on which the Scots were now being asked to vote no fewer than five times in order to make it happen. Tony Blair at first welcomed this as "a mature and sensible decision". I cannot think why anyone advised him to say this. It was the sort of Sellotape compromise which is just bearable in a subcommittee split on the colour of traffic signs, but totally out of order on a matter of national policy. Anyway, it unleashed such an avalanche of fury and derision that he and the Scottish Executive were forced on Friday to drop it.

There are two ways to look at this. One is to see it as a penalty for Tony Blair's utter determination to avoid the charge of tax-raising. The "tartan tax" jeer has been used against Labour's plans for more than two years with devastating effect by Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland. In spite of the sound and democratic reasons for granting a Scottish parliament a marginal right to raise revenue, Labour in Scotland on its own has been unable to get those reasons across or parry the onslaught.

It was the spreading damage being caused by Mr Forsyth that led Mr Blair to his famous U-turn in June. He overruled the party in Scotland and decreed that before a Labour government introduced a devolution bill, there must be a two-question referendum in Scotland asking for separate approval for a parliament and for tax-raising powers. But the split this caused in Scottish Labour became so serious that there was a real possibility that the Scottish Executive meeting at Stirling on 31 August might reject the second question.

Deadlocked, the Stirling meeting flailed blindly for a way out. It was at this point that Mohammed Sarwar, the Glasgow cash-and-carry magnate who is Labour candidate for Govan, suggested yet another referendum, to be held by the Scottish parliament before it took marginal tax powers. George Robertson, shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, snatched at this gimcrack idea, which secured a narrow majority in the executive but was then howled down last week by the party, the media and public opinion.

The other approach is to brood on the long tragedy of the Scottish Executive itself. It is a drama of impotence and injured patriotism. Scottish Labour likes to think that it takes its own decisions in Scotland, and feels that it has a mighty democratic mandate to represent the Scottish people. For more than 20 years, Labour has been overwhelmingly the largest party in the land in terms of seats, both parliamentary and in local government.

And yet, at the national level, these are empty glories. For the past 17 years, Scotland has been governed by the Tories, imposing often deeply unpopular policies which the "feeble fifty" Labour MPs have been unable to prevent. The proud claim that "we will use our strength to defend Scottish voters" proved vain when the Tories used Scotland to try out the poll tax. As for the party itself, the truth is that the "Scottish Council of the Labour Party" is a wholly-owned subsidiary, allowed to manage its own local affairs but subordinate to London in matters of policy. As the convulsions of this summer have shown, there is no chance that Scottish Labour could formulate a manifesto which did not have the approval of the national executive and the party's British leadership.

At this stage, when a Labour-led Scottish parliament has become a real possibility within a few years, there is a terrifying lack of leadership in Scottish Labour. This is not just a matter of personalities. The whole structure is inappropriate and wrong. The Scottish Executive is a motley committee which represents the broad Labour movement for internal purposes, but is totally unfit to provide leadership for a nation approaching the moment of self-government.

The trade unions have 12 members of the executive, the constituency Labour parties (often selected by the "slate" of one party faction or another) have 10, there are five women and two MPs - one of whom is the shadow Secretary of State. The executive, in other words, is a committee of busy people whose main interests lie elsewhere, connected only by their wish to keep the party healthy, happy and, if possible, united.

Its decisions are usually worthy, but not always. The Dalintober Street affair, back in 1974, arose from a meeting of the Scottish Executive which was so ill-attended (many members were watching Scotland play in the World Cup) that a small anti-devolution caucus was able to carry the day. And yet when London steps in and whips them back into line, the sense of violated patriotism among executive members is very real indeed.

The current victim of this system is Mr Robertson, and he deserves sympathy. He has made mistakes, like taking Mr Sarwar seriously. But his commitment to a Scottish parliament and to the cross-party Constitutional Convention is genuine, and it has been horrible to watch him repeatedly forced to eat his own words. He denounced the referendum idea, and then had to change his tune when Tony Blair adopted it. He went loyally out to sell the executive's nonsensical second referendum to the party, and last Friday had to admit that it had "no support".

This cannot go on. Groups within Scottish Labour have argued for years that Home Rule must be for parties as well as nations, and they are right. The Scottish Executive must be replaced by a genuine political leadership, elected directly by party members, whose job is policy-making. Party management must be left to somebody else. This new body must have the right to make its own manifesto for a Scottish parliament and to appoint its own party officers in Scotland without interference from London. The relationship with British Labour as a whole must be a federal one. The cord of dependency has to be cut.

This will not be easy. Many figures in Scottish Labour, having claimed the moral high ground, have fallen asleep on it. Real responsibility, as opposed to waiting for a safe Glasgow seat at Westminster, means living dangerously. But nothing is so dangerous as this lack of energy at the very centre of Scottish politics, as the chance of governing, instead of eternally opposing, draws closer.