Labour divided over Scottish referendum

8 May 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): At yesterday's PMQs, Gordon Brown distanced himself from Wendy Alexander's call for an early referendum on Scottish independence:

"The Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the Labour Party have joined together in setting up the Calman Review, the commission on devolution," he said. "I hope we can make progress in that commission, and we will review the progress before making any further decisions."

Brown did his best to maintain the polite fiction that he was on the same page as the Scottish Labour leader, but others have been more forthcoming:

The unilateral initiative left some ministers and backbenchers aghast. One minister said: "She has been pestering Brown about this for months, and now she has used his weekend of the greatest vulnerability and weakness to press ahead.

"We are completely perplexed why she has done it now. It is entirely disingenuous for her to say it was the first anniversary of the Scottish elections, or she was simply answering a question from a journalist."

Westminster opposition may not be the only obstacle to an early vote. Brian Taylor believes that Alexander's plan to table her own bill at Holyrood may be unworkable:

Firstly, she would require the support of at least one other party to table such a bill. Secondly, if there is the prospect of a Government Bill on a comparable topic - then a member's bill is ruled out.

Given that SNP ministers plan their own Bill for a referendum in 2010, this would appear to be a problem.

The events of the past few days have put Labour in a much weaker position to oppose a Scottish Government referendum bill when it comes. In seeking to shoot the SNP's fox, Alexander may only succeeded in making a referendum on the nationalists' preferred timetable more likely.

Her actions were widely seen as sidelining the Calman Commission, which was largely her creation. However, It now looks as if any referendum is likely to come after the Commission has reported. It's proposals will be crucial to the unionist case. That is a powerful incentive to offer Scotland as much autonomy as possible, rather than risk losing the union altogether.

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