Scottish Labour meltdown prompts fears for the Union

Update The Guardian says Gordon Brown will call a snap by-election in Glasgow East next month. His premiership could be at stake says the Herald. See rewrite and more below the fold.

The fall-out from Wendy Alexander’s resignation as Labour leader in the Scottish Parliament and a good SNP showing in the Westminster by-election for Glasgow East could trigger a collapse throughout GB from which Labour might never recover and even imperil the Union, warns anti Brown and fanatical Blairite John Rentoul in the Independent. But even Rentoul will be taken aback if the latest report this morning is confirmed.

Today the Guardian is sensationally reporting that Gordon Brown intends to make the huge gamble and take the battle to the SNP by calling the by-election for July 24 to catch Alex Salmond on the hop.

The Scottish dimension of Labour’s dramatic collapse in the polls is an amazing story of political poker. The Prime Minister may be laying his job on the line. As he raises the stakes to that level, is the threat to the Union as big as some fear? Or is Brown about to repeat Wendy Alexander’s cardinal mistake and confuse Labour’s fate with that of the Union?

Certainly Alex Salmond has the Big Mo behind him and the scenario is by no means inconceivable.

First, Scottish Labour is in dreadful disarray, as Scotland on Sunday reports.

The party is split at least three ways, between MSPs and Westminster MPs, and within the Holyrood Parliament itself, over whether to continue with Alexander’s policy of defying the SNP to “bring on ” a referendum on independence. For many, her downfall is a heaven-sent opportunity to get themselves off an uncomfortable hook. For others, Labour’s best chance lies in seizing the initiative and going for a referendum that unionists can win.

Next, the polls are running the SNP’s way, gaining on Labour for Westminster and passing them for the differently defined Holyrood constituencies and regions.

Yet all is not lost …The best option for Scottish Labour is to argue for enhanced powers for the Holyrood Parliament, says noted commentator Iain McWhirter.

Furthermore, Rentoul referred to the obstacles in the path to independence, including almost certainly not one, but two referendums, the first on independence on principle, the second, on the final proposals which have to be agreed with Westminster, which among other things would bring the Westminster subsidy to an end.

The case is made by Robert Hazell of the University of London’s Constitution Unit

(Declaration of interest: I’m an honorary fellow of the Unit)

Even so, does the trend of events and opinion bring Scottish independence that bit nearer? Undoubtedly the force is with the SNP. Yet today, Salmond’s minority government for all their self confidence are blocked by a solid unionist majority in the Parliament. Unless the pro-union parties turn to jelly, Salmond cannot even win a parliamentary vote to call a referendum, much less win a referendum itself in 2010, the year the First Minister says he wants to call it – even with the momentum gained if the SNP become the largest Scottish party in the next Westminster general election expected in spring of that year. You can see what Salmond is up to. He is using the independence argument to create momentum and chip away at Labour. In his heart he may not even want an early referendum; the prospect of one spooks and divides Labour and is too useful a weapon to give up easily.

As Alexander’s fall partly shows, Salmond’s referendum tactics have proved a brilliant success. She had no answer to Salmond’s tour de force in office. She seized on the one major topic over which she thought she, as the head of the largest unionist party in a Parliament with an overall unionist majority, held the initiative -on the choice between Union or independence by referendum. By law, only the Scottish government can move the Bill for a referendum. She believed she would call Salmond’s bluff by forcing him to bring in a referendum Bill his minority SNP government would be sure to lose. Instead, she fell into Salmond’s trap. She split the party by making the referendum Labour’s immediate cause, while Salmon refused to budge from his 2010 date. She did this when there was no need to do so and when most of her party – including Gordon Brown – vehemently opposed it. It is that basic tactical blunder, as much as the error of failing to declare a small invalid donation, that was the cause of her downfall. Salmon had called Alexander’s bluff, rather than vice versa.

In two years’ time, the balance of a devolved UK may change if a Conservative government is elected, with the SNP the largest party in Scotland.
A Conservative England and a nationalist Scotland would be left staring at each other for a while. Who knows what would happen: but one scenario is that an referendum on Scottish independence would be much more viable after 5 May 2011. That is the set date for the next Holyrood election, which the SNP on trend could win outright. But as the polls consistently show, there is no guarantee they would win a referendum on outright independence.

The Herald spells out this morning of what’s immediately at stake.

All parties including the SNP are waking up to the realisation that although Scots may vote in three years’ time for an SNP majority government, they consistently oppose outright independence, while favouring more powers for the Holyrood Parliament.

In the end, Salmond and co. may be only too happy to settle for something like a federal solution – an outcome which would make waves all over the UK including NI, though well short of the epochal conclusion of an end to the Union. In the short term – next month – Gordon Brown seems ready to stake his future on an absorbing game of the highest stakes.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London