Why the Battle of Inverness matters

It is unclear that the Scots comrades want a new Clause IV. And if they don't, Tony Blair is in trouble
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The Independent Online
There has been no Battle of Inverness, though the gloominess of Culloden moor, where the Jacobites were destroyed by 18th-century modernisers, lies nearby. But what has been worrying Tony Blair and team ahead of tomorrow's confrontation at the Scottish Labour conference there is whether this is to be a battle or a sideshow.

If it is a battle over the party's aims and values, then Blair needs to win it. Some of his allies have been duly talking up the importance and knife-edge nature of the Clause IV vote, so that when the modernisers' victory follows, it will seem the more impressive. But other Blair people are frightened that he's going to lose, in which case better talk the thing down and explain that any embarrassments at Inverness will be swamped by the triumph to come at the special conference in London at the end of April.

A ticklish one, clearly. It can't be simultaneously a famous victory if he wins and a meaningless skirmish if he doesn't. So let it be stated clearly: the Battle of Inverness matters. Scottish MPs and party activists were still saying yesterday that it was likely to be a close call: if the modernisers are unexpectedly hacked to bits by the light cavalry of the Campaign Group and Clan Canavan, then it will have been a very bad day for the leader.

In the end, of course, across the party as a whole, Blair will win. For this is not a genuinely open political conversation. It is an exercise in old-style political leadership, smashing dissent for reasons of state. The answer is pre-scripted; and that answer will be given at a time carefully chosen to come just ahead of the local elections, at which Labour expects further to consolidate its commanding position.

Blair does nothing - he barely pulls his socks on - without thinking of how it can contribute to a winning electoral strategy. And this is meant to be a controlled part of a strategy.

The reasons given for ditching the old Clause IV formula are sound ones. Blair harps on, rightly, about the need for a statement of the party's aims which it can sell on the doorstep. More profoundly, he was right to argue that the old commitment to mass nationalisation drove a wedge between all past Labour leaders - who knew perfectly well that they could not deliver it - and the party membership, which liked to pretend that it thought they could. Thus insincerity and leadership betrayal was built into the very founding principles of the party.

Prising them out again now, however, has precious little to do with the triumph of democracy. Thousands of Labour members have been involved in the consultation process. But "full consultation" is a euphemism for "and then the leader decides". Those comrades, Scottish or other, who want to keep Clause IV may think they are taking part in a genuine debate. But a debate implies that each side is listening seriously to the other. In that sense, there is no such debate.

The majority of frustrated socialists, who know this full well, lament that the whole argument is a terrible "diversion" and "so unnecessary". They miss the point. The argument is the point: the leader's triumph and the leader's assertion of his authority, so distinguishing the True Leader from the False Leader (John Major) in the eyes of Middle Britain. The point, to put it brutally, is the Clause Fourites getting beat.

But here is where the national question cuts across the Blair strategy so uncomfortably. For tomorrow he takes on not just another group of activists expressing worry, but the proudly independent-minded Scottish Labour Party, which has long had a strongly defensive attitude to Clause IV and where disdain for Blair is easier to find. Partly this is because Scotland is further left than England, with stronger communal-democratic traditions.

More to the point, though, is that the Scottish Labour Party is to go to the polls at the next election promising the Scottish people home rule. And it wouldn't look spectacularly good, would it, if that same patriotic and stiff-backed group of heroes voted to retain Clause IV - and was then simply ordered by the London leadership to go and jump in nearest loch?

The Scottish Nationalists, gearing up for the Perth and Kinross by-election, would have a glorious time mocking the devolutionary pretensions of a Labour leader who ignored his Scottish party when it suited him. Why should anyone believe that, as prime minister, he would allow real power - the power to do things he disapproved of - to be passed to a Scottish parliament?

As it happens, the behind-the-scenes work for Scottish home rule is going on at a cracking pace, with quiet assistance coming from academics, former and serving civil servants, parliamentary experts and others. If Labour wins a comfortable majority, it will ram this through quickly and brutally and laugh at squeals of anguish from the new guardians of parliamentary etiquette on the opposition Tory benches. One leading Shadow Cabinet man asked me yesterday if I knew for how long the Bill introducing the Single European Act had been on the floor of the Commons in full committee before it was guillotined and dragged off by the Tory business managers. I didn't. He grinned: "Five days," he said, "just five."

So I believe that if Labour wins then this great thing will happen, and that once a Scottish parliament is established, it will be very difficult for Blair or anyone else to keep a tight rein on it.

None of that, though, solves the Inverness problem, or the more general paradoxes of Blair's leadership style that it points to. My guess is that Blair and team will have to accept that tomorrow's vote matters, and go all out to win, and be ready to be embarrassed if they fail.

It wouldn't be surprising if they leaked their own carefully polished draft of Labour's aims and values, due to be discussed by the party's national executive committee on Monday. Doing so would calm those Scottish delegates who fear that, in voting for change, they could be voting for anything - the draft, which has been shown to some union leaders, apparently includes coded references to full employment and the equitable distribution of wealth, which some on the left will find reassuring.

Whether this is enough, we shall shortly see. But the Inverness dilemma reminds us also of the central paradox in the Blair leadership style. He presents himself as a strong, decisive, disciplinarian leader, ready to take risks and brutally unequivocal in his views. The electorate likes this. Yet his political project is heavily based on the need to devolve authority away from Westminster; he promises a more plural, open, attitude to power than the Conservatives; and we hypocritical, inconstant voters say we are pretty keen on that idea, too.

It cannot be both. If Blair plans to behave to the country as he currently behaves towards his party, he cannot possibly be the pluralist leader the country needs and he says he wants to be. Ahead of his Inverness speech, this is not the kind of problem he will be able to bother himself with. But afterwards, win or lose, it's something he badly needs to ponder.