Monday, 29 December 2008

Scottish Labour's Indecision on an Independence Referendum

This one appeared in the June 2008 edition of Barn magazine, after it had been translated into Welsh, of course. It was written in the wake of Wendy Alexander's infamous "Bring It On" moment.

A few weeks ago, Scottish politics looked clear. The SNP Government would try to hold a referendum on independence in 2010. They would table a Bill in the Scottish Parliament asking if the Scottish Government “should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes and independent state.”

By 2010, there would probably be a Conservative Government in London: one that Scots hadn't voted for and didn't want, so Alex Salmond would have a good chance of winning the referendum. But it wouldn't come to that: the Bill would go before Parliament, but the three Unionist parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – would vote against it, and the SNP would go into the Scottish elections in 2011 accusing the Opposition of conspiring to deny the Scottish people a say on Scotland's future.

Then, on the 4th of May, a Scottish newspaper printed a report that Wendy Alexander, Leader of the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament, and Gordon Brown were planning to put forward a Referendum Bill at Westminster, where it would pass, and a referendum would take place far sooner than Alex Salmond wanted. That day, Wendy Alexander was asked about the plan on BBC Scotland. She denied it, but the interviewer asked her if she opposed a referendum ever taking place. Her answer was relaxed, almost casual, but it shook Scottish politics up: “I don't fear the verdict of the Scottish people. Bring it on!”

Momentum gathered. On the 5th of May, it looked like Labour could support the SNP's Bill: they had announced that they would certainly not oppose it. That meant that even if Labour were to abstain, the Bill would still pass: the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would only have 32 votes between them. The SNP on their own have 47 MSPs, and could rely on the Green Party. They would perhaps get the support of Margo MacDonald – the Independent MSP – as well. So the Bill would become law, and the vote would take place.

And Scottish Labour started feeling confident. They challenged the SNP to bring the Bill forward as soon as possible, and hold the vote sooner rather than later. The SNP responded that they would stick to their manifesto, and wait until 2010. Labour thought they had a chance to go on the attack and said that they would publish their own Referendum Bill. Wendy Alexander was interviewed again on the 6th of May: she was asked if she had spoken to Gordon Brown about her plan, and if he endorsed it. Her reply was clear: “Yes.”

That's when it went wrong. Firstly, the Conservatives at Westminster re-affirmed their Unionism, with David Cameron asking Gordon Brown about Wendy Alexander's support for a referendum. Brown replied that she hadn't given any support for a referendum. So what had Wendy Alexander spoken to him about? And what did Gordon Brown say he supported?

Worse was to come: parliamentary rules meant that Labour wouldn't be able to introduce a Referendum Bill. As a Member's Bill, it would have to have the support of 18 MSPs. That was easy: there are 46 Labour MSPs. But one of the 18 has to come from another Party that has at least five seats, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both made it clear that they opposed the plan. Even so, they still wouldn't be able to propose the Bill if the Government planned to put forward their own Bill before the election. They do, of course, so Labour's plan failed.

By the 11th of May, Wendy Alexander went on television again. This time, she said that she would not stand in the way of a Referendum Bill: they were back to the position they had held six days earlier.

But on the 12th, a new line was agreed. That night, Malcolm Chisholm, who had very quickly been appointed Labour's “Constitutional Affairs Spokesman” went on television with his mantra: Labour would not “give the SNP a blank cheque”. This suggested that there were circumstances in which they could vote against a Bill, and the interviewer asked repeatedly if that was the case. All Chisholm said was, “We will not give the SNP a blank cheque,” over and over again.

In two weeks, Labour went from “no referendum ever” to “there could be one” to “there must be one right now”, then back to “there could be one” and finally to “there'll be one if we want one”. And the suspicion is that they won't want one. So after two weeks of rows, changes, and arguments with Gordon Brown, Scottish Labour's policy on an independence referendum looks to be exactly what it was in May 2007. And they lost that election, so Alex Salmond will be looking forward to 2011.

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