Monday, November 27, 2006

Waiting for Gordo

Where is Gordon? What is he doing? The SNP are continuing their climb up the Scottish opinion polls, now leading Labour by 32% to 30% in the latest Mori survey. 51% of Scots told the same poll that they supported independence. But Gordon Brown, the Godfather of Scottish Labour politics, seem to be doing precious little about it.

Everyone expects the Chancellor to come wading in to the debate on separation, as he has done in the past, subjecting the SNP ‘independence budget’ to rigorous scrutiny. But so far, his contribution to saving the UK has been confined to putting Adam Smith’s head on British bank-notes. And that was counter-productive. After all, said nationalists, the fact that it is called the “Bank of England” kind of says all you need to know about Scotland’s subordinate status.

The debate about fiscal autonomy continues to attract commentators from the right as well as the nationalist left. Sir Ian Vallance, the former head of BT has talked favourably about tax powers for Holyrood, as more recently has Crawford Beveridge, the former chief executive of Scottish Enterprise. The Scottish press is fascinated by the whole question of autonomy, and Labour’s unionist case is in danger of going by default.

Of course, the 2007 Holyrood election campaign hasn’t begun yet, and it could be that Brown is just keeping his powder dry. Labour people fully expect that their slogan from 1999, “Divorce is an Expensive Business”, will serve them well once more. That Scottish voters will be scared back into the Union.

Only it may not be so easy this time.The Scottish voters have moved on. The debates about financial powers for the Holyrood, have had an impact on public opinion. Autonomy is becoming respectable.

Much has changed since 1998/99 - the Labour government for a start. Eight years ago, Labour was very much in command in Westminster, with Tony Blair dominating the political landscape. Now, the same Labour administration looks tired, divided, sleazy. And Gordon Brown isn’t the force he was.

The Scottish Parliament has been in existence now for eight years and is now part of the constitutional landscape. Measures like free care or the smoking ban show that Holyrood can make a difference. It is easier to sell the idea of progressing, as it were, to the next level. Or ‘Holyrood 2.0’ as it’s being called.

Moreover, voters perhaps understand better than in 1999 that a vote for the SNP doesn’t necessarily mean independence the day after tomorrow. This is a parliament of minorities and there is no prospect of the SNP winning absolute control. Even if it were to return as the biggest party - highly unlikely given the spread of nationalist votes - the SNP would have to form a coalition. Then there would be a referendum on independence.

So, Labour should beware of complacency. Scots may be looking for a bit of action in their politics. The sheer dullness of the Scottish Executive has been a profound disappointment. When he’s on form, Jack McConnell looks a reasonable leader. But he is surrounded by crowd of faceless nonentities in his Cabinet. At least the SNP have a decent leader, in Alex Salmond, and a few sparky personalities, like the parliamentary leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m not saying that the SNP are going to make a breakthrough in May. But there is every possibility of them doing well, of even surprising themselves. Nationalism tends to come in ten year cycles, and the tenth anniversary of the 1997 devolution referendum, could be a good year.

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