04 May 2008

Labour press the panic button

If reports from the Sunday Mail are to be believed - and on the internal state of Labour I'd read them very closely - Gordon Brown and Wendy Alexander are coming round to the way of thinking that Labour need to support a yes/no referendum on independence to "call the SNP's bluff" and so throw Alex Salmond's party into chaos.

Well, any conversion to a refernedum is welcome, but this is the problem with Labour's view on the constitution: none of their plans are ever put forward because they believe in X or Y. They are always put forward because the Leadership reckon it will shaft the SNP. So if this is about party self-interest rather than the principle of Scotland having a say, let's take a look at why it's completely barmy.

1. What if they're wrong? They want a yes/no referendum. Independence does better when a simple yes/no question is asked than when a range of options are put forward, and a System3 poll which gave a yes/no question found a plurality voting in favour. They could give Scotland independence through a political miscalculation.

2. Even if they're right, this won't sideline the SNP at all. How long were the Quebecois nationalists in power for? How long have the Catalan nationalists been in power for? Even if Scots did vote No, they might quite like a devolved administration that goes its own way, with a First Minister who can bang his fist on the table at JMC meetings. And besides, look at Labour campaigns: in 1999, the slogan was "Divorce is an expensive business"; in 2003, there was a poster of Scotland literally coming apart from the rest of Britain and sort of dangling off the corner of Northumberland with the caption "Then what?"; and in 2007 the slogan was "Break up Britain, End up Broke". A 'No' vote would put independence off the table for more or less 15 years, and Labour would lose its biggest point of attack against the SNP who could then govern Scotland in the way that similar political parties in Quebec and Catalonia have done. Labour could still end up in Opposition for a long time.

3. Every move made by the Unionist parties has been in the SNP's direction. To get Labour to support a referendum would be a massive triumph for the SNP, in fact it would be the ultimate victory. Labour could never credibly oppose a referendum again, and more importantly the SNP could simply state that Labour had conceded on the SNP's main point: that it's for the Scottish people to decide the issue. That's the SNP policy and Labour would be supporting it, even if the two parties disagreed on the outcome. The SNP would never let Labour forget that. Ever.

4. Doesn't this completely sideline the Calman Commission, which both Alexander and Brown are putting their faith in? What about its work, its findings? To boil the matter down to "Independence - Yes or No?" is to render the commission/working group completely ineffective.

So either the Sunday Mail's got it wrong or the Labour Leadership is in a more heightened state of panic than we thought.

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