Three days to rescue the reformers' hopes

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The Independent Online
Normal business will resume, officially, on Monday. But politicians, if they are wise, will be chary. This week's highly-strung public mood may linger. People may find it hard to stomach too swift a return to the partisan, divisive grind. Unifying, healing speech may be at a premium, with the tabloids desperately eager to leap upon breakers of their partisan definitions of peace. Might that mean the unionist tide will run more strongly north of the English border and the Welsh show themselves no more enthusiastic about national political self-expression than they were when last consulted 20 years ago?

Even though it has redoubtable Liberal and nationalist allies in both Scotland and Wales, it is of course Labour which is the principal devolutionist party. The Government thus has most to lose by the failure of the campaigns which are this week in suspension - and failure must be taken to include a low turnout. Its leading lights will, doubtless, be on their guard. Perhaps the vehemence of Donald Dewar's opposition to Scotland's football game taking place on Saturday had to do with his sense of having to tread a very fine line. Labour seems at pains to say that loyalism (at least of the Diana variant) does not forbid devolution.

But the death of the Princess has cost Mr Dewar and his colleagues quite a bit, and more than just time on the campaign trail. The momentum that was meant to build up from mid-August (when the Scottish schools went back) was lost. The devolutionists have barely three days' campaigning before Scotland votes next Thursday and that against a background of growing anti-devolution sentiment, at least as registered in the polls. The odds are mounting in favour of some significant embarrassment for Labour, either in terms of a low turnout, or even a vote against the second, tax-raising, proposition. It seems likely that Labour will win its vote a week later in Wales, but possibly on a turnout which casts doubt on the desire of the Welsh for significant constitutional change.

It is worth rehearsing, briefly, why these votes matter. It is evident the people living in Scotland and Wales (a plural bunch, let's not forget - not all Scottish residents are Scots and some of the inhabitants of Cardiff speak Chinese) are being offered an opportunity not just to reflect upon governance but to alter it to suit them. The occasion matters to the population of England, too.

Scottish devolution bulked large in the Labour manifesto. A yes-no vote in Scotland punctures Blairite rhetoric and demonstrates the misalignment of Labour Party opinion. A check to constitutional reform here could severely reduce the time and energy the Government would be prepared to put into other commitments - on proportional representation, on House of Lords and parliamentary reform. The case, among other things, for more local self-government in England (including London) could be vitiated: if Scottish and Welsh voters proved apathetic or antagonistic, could Labour trust Londoners to turn out in their droves to reform the governance of the capital?

Yet if Scottish devolution matters so much to the fate of this government, the Labour leadership turns out to have been lackadaisical. The campaign for a yes-yes vote started late and unpropitiously. Paisley - the report by Labour's chief whip, Nick Brown, was peculiarly ill-timed - gave the enemies of devolution an apt slogan, and an effective question: why should the machine which brought you the murky local and constituency dealings of west central Scotland behave differently when its spoils also included seats in an Edinburgh assembly? Labour's paladins, Messrs Mandelson and Prescott, arrived late and ineffectually. Mr Blair, so blessed by his personal opinion poll rating, has so far chosen not to sprinkle his charisma across the borders of England.

Cynics say Labour leaders would privately be quite content with a yes- no vote. It would, inter alia, stop awkward questions being raised about the Barnett formula, under which Scotland ends up with extra public spending per head. It would please the constitutional conservatives who throng the Cabinet. But it would also undermine one of the Government's stalwarts, Donald Dewar. He has hardly had a faultless innings. Labour's campaign alliance with the Scottish National Party is dangerous - as risky as any connection with ultras who will never settle to the real business of politics, which is negotiation and untidy compromise.

Mr Dewar seems to have been taken by surprise by the rejectionist sentiments of the Scottish Confederation of British Industry and the Bank of Scotland governor, Sir Bruce Pattullo. You do not have to subscribe to the folk myth of Scottish financial prudence to see that a considered rejection of revenue-raising powers by a pillar of the financial establishment was bound to affect the mood. That business interests speak with slightly forked tongue is beside the point (only the other day English business was welcoming the devolution of powers to the English regions).

Recent polls suggest support for the Conservatives has grown. Such evidence need not be a cause for Labour concern. Tory strength is likely to have been consistently under-reported during the Thatcher-Major years and the non-representation of Conservatives in Scotland in the Westminster Parliament is now one of the most glaring anomalies of first-past-the-post voting. Renewed Tory support could indeed be a sign of politics in Scotland returning "to normal" - which could mean the status quo of 1979. The vote next Thursday could see the satisfaction of Scots with the new government in London permitting only a limited change to governance in Edinburgh. Labour has a lot of work to do next week to avoid that embarrassment.