Labour must not hidebehind a referendum

Despite the competing plans for the future of the Scottish constitution, politics north of the border have scarcely moved since the 1992 general election. The parties have in effect been waiting for the next election, each knowing that it will be faced with what John Smith called unfinished business. The late Labour leader was referring to the aborted devolution process of the 1970s, but there is more recent unfinished business in that expectations among the three opposition parties that the 1992 election would move the constitutional question from debate to legislation have still to be realised.

Whether last week's revelation of Labour plans for a referendum and the bitterness that has caused will mark a sea-change in politics, as the Scottish National Party claims, remains doubtful. Come the election the largest block of voters, perhaps close to half of them, will probably give Labour another chance, not just in the hope of devolution but as a signal that Tony Blair is best placed to remove the Tories. In other words, despite Alex Salmond's best efforts and the attempts by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Scotland to play the Union card, the prospect of constitutional change, now to follow a referendum, will be only one of the factors in how people vote.

The furore about Labour's supposed U-turn may not in the end count for much. Weaknesses in the devolutionary proposals emanating from the Constitutional Convention and embraced by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be ruthlessly exploited, certainly by Mr Forsyth. Business sceptics will not stop worrying about the taxation proposals simply because the people are to be given a say in whether they survive or not.

That the scheme which Mr Blair would turn into a parliamentary Bill is easily exposed to attack should not, however, deter advocates of devolution from pressing the fundamental case. Of course the so-called West Lothian question will have to be confronted one day, and Labour may have to accept fewer Westminster MPs from Scotland. Of course, too, the relationship between a devolved assembly and the "mother of Parliaments" needs further examination. But what set of constitutional arrangements is foolproof? If anyone was proposing a reform which would produce the present structure of Scottish government they would be laughed out of court.

That point was illustrated for the umpteenth time last week during the committee stage of the Scottish Education Bill. Ministers wanted to amend it to provide for testing of pupils in the first two years of secondary school. The Bill is tenable only through the support of English backbenchers drafted on to the committee examining it. The SNP decided to stage a sit-in to expose the anomaly.

This tactic received less publicity than might have been expected. That was not just because it coincided with Labour's referendum troubles. Everyone has become cynically used to the way in which Scottish opinion is systematically ignored in the Commons. In the 1980s, Mr Forsyth relied on English MPs to impose unwanted (and virtually unused) legislation for self-governing schools. In a genuinely Scottish forum his proposals would not have stood a chance of success.

Mr Blair defends the referendum by saying that he will lead the "yes" campaign. Such determination has also to be applied by him and the rest of his party in arguing the fundamental case for devolution. Otherwise the fact that there is always devil in the detail will be used by the Tories to undermine the genuine but unfocused demand by the Scottish people for their own parliament.

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