Thursday May 8 2008
Sometimes Gordon Brown speaks as if he wants to wish
away reality. He did it yesterday afternoon at prime
minister's questions. Asked by David Cameron about Wendy
Alexander's public conversion to the merits of a referendum
on Scottish independence, the prime minister did not
stonewall or dodge the question: he answered it head-on
by denying that Labour's Scottish parliamentary leader
supported any such thing. Even Mr Cameron looked surprised
by this ingenious inversion of the truth. Ms Alexander
has, after all, spent the last few days trumpeting the
merits of her new policy, intended to flush out Scotland's
nationalist administration, which talks of independence
but knows perfectly well that any immediate vote on
the issue would be lost. "We shouldn't leave it to the
fag-end of a parliament to get around to testing public
opinion," she said on Tuesday. "Bring it on."
The result is that Labour has now taken devolution
to its logical conclusion: it offers voters on different
sides of the border conflicting constitutional policies.
At Holyrood, Ms Alexander backs an early referendum
- her words could hardly be clearer. At Westminster,
Mr Brown remains firmly opposed and claims no independence
referendum is planned. Yesterday he said that Scotland's
constitutional future was in the hands of Sir Kenneth
Calman, who is heading one of the lumbering commissions
of which the prime minister is so fond, looking at ways
devolution can be made more effective. "I hope that
we can see progress in that commission and we will review
that progress before making any further decision," Mr
Brown told MPs. But the Calman review is not considering
independence and anyway will not report finally until
late next year.
Ms Alexander's constitutional timetable is more rapid
than that. Her decision to back a referendum was brave
and surprising. It was also an obvious test of Mr Brown's
authority. She is said to have announced the change
of policy without telling the prime minister, even though
constitutional matters remain under Westminster control.
His response leaves her exposed: she can hardly retreat
from her support for a referendum, after backing one
in such clear terms. But Mr Brown seems determined to
stop one, even if it means humiliating Ms Alexander.
The winner from this mess is the Scottish National party.
It has much to gain from Labour infighting over Scotland's
constitutional future. There is a case for a vote now
and a case for opposing one, too. But to propose both
things at once is absurd.
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