Tory revival overshadows referendum debate

Tom Griffin
14 May 2008

Tom Griffin (London, Green Ribbon): The Labour Party has suffered a fair amount of ridicule over its position on a Scottish independence referendum in recent days. Guido Fawkes is offering a prize to anyone who can explain the current policy in less than fifty words. More sober commentators don't sound much more impressed.

After last week's meeting of the Labour group at Holyrood, the chairman Duncan McNeil declared: "we are now in a position where, as a group, we will not vote down any referendum bill that comes into the parliament."

After this week's meeting, McNeil stressed that "We have no principle objection to a referendum. But that doesn't mean we're going to give up our right to scrutinise that Bill and hold them to account."

Despite executing two u-turns in as many weeks , Labour is not quite back at square one. Having conceded the principle, it is in a much weaker position to oppose a referendum on the SNP's preferred date of 2010. Wendy Alexander's credibility has been severely damaged, not least because she has clearly been reined in by Gordon Brown.

The timing of her failed attempt to derail the SNP timetable, in the aftermath of the local elections, was telling. As the Financial Times noted, the election results held out the prospect of a crucial advantage for the nationalists:

"By 2010 the Nationalists may have another card to play in a referendum, if the Conservatives beat Labour at a UK general election due by then. Such a result would leave Labour in disarray across Britain and weakened in Scotland. It would put Mr Cameron's party in power almost exclusively as a result of seats won in England. Currently the Tories hold just one seat in Scotland. The SNP could claim that Scotland was being run by a Westminster government out of touch with Scottish opinion."

Labour's vulnerability to such an SNP-Conservative pincer movement is highlighted in a valuable analysis published this week by Gerry Hassan at Scottish Futures:

"Scottish politics have in the last thirty years gone through three distinct phases: the first the anti-Tory era of the 1980s and early 1990s, the second the anti-Nationalist period of the early years of devolution, and the third the current anti-Labour period of the last few years.
What has occurred in each of these periods is a kind of 'pack politics' whereby one of the parties was singled out by the others who ganged up on it as a pack and attacked the 'outsider': the Tories in the 1980s, SNP in 1999 onwards and Labour now."

The confusion over the past two weeks has done little to enhance the unionist unity that Gordon Brown called for at PMQs today. If anything it has only strengthened the case of those Tories who want to embrace a potentially fateful alternative, a tacit alliance with the SNP.

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