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This time Macavity was there

Well, this time Macavity was there. Gordon Brown can’t escape responsibility for the Scottish Labour election campaign, as he has so many of Labour’s earlier disasters. The Chancellor was very visibly at the scene of the crime, having spent much of the last six months masterminding the effort to stuff the Nats. If Labour goes down to defeat, his paw prints are all over it.

David Cameron will point to the hundreds of expected losses in the English council elections and declare it a double verdict, on Blair and Brown. It would indeed be a dismal opening to his premiership for Brown to lose Scotland and half of England as well. The politician who “loves Britain”, who pledged to bring Scotland and England closer together, will be accused of driving them further apart.

It almost looks as if Blair stayed on just long enough to do maximum damage to Brown’s prospects before leaving him to clear up the electoral mess. Labour’s Scottish polling figures are dreadful, but their UK figures are even worse. Recent polls have polls have placed Labour in its worst position since 1983 and the days of Michael Foot.

Brown’s coronation, without any serious contest, will be seen, in this context, as an undemocratic fix. At least John Major had a proper leadership election in 1990. Brown will be attacked as a prime minister whose time has passed even before he made it into Number Ten. Hardly surprising that Blairites are sucking their teeth and saying that the next general election is already lost.

Of course, it’s not over till it’s over, and Labour is still hoping for something to turn up, in Scotland at least. Labour took the advice of this column last week and effectively brought forward Tony Blair’s resignation by floating the idea with the Daily Telegraph that there might be an announcement on Blair’s future as early as tomorrow. The PM denied it, of course, but there was no denial that he was going on the 9th or 10th of May, which was the substance of the story, and the press has already started running retrospectives on the Blair years.

But it seems that it is too late for this ploy to work, at least in isolation. Just making Blair history is not longer enough; Brown is not the election winner he was in Scotland still less England. Labour would have to make some very dramatic and humbling gestures in the last few days of this campaign to encourage Scots back into the fold. It would take an admission that they had misjudged the mood of Scotland, had misunderstood the dynamics of devolution, were prepared to review the powers of the parliament to change things at this late stage.

I doubt if the party is in any position to make that kind of switch in the dying days of this Holyrood campaign, and the party is now hoping that the vagaries of the electoral system will save them from defeat. It’s generally assumed that, because of the distribution of nationalist votes, the SNP needs to win around 2% more votes than Labour to return the same number of seats. Thursday night is going to be a real nail-biter, not that Gordon has any left top bite.

But the momentum is undoubtedly with the SNP. Yesterday’s YouGov poll, for the Economic and Social Research Council, the largest in the campaign, indicated that the SNP are eight points ahead in the constituency vote. Three Sunday papers came out in favour of the SNP – the Sunday Herald, Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Times – in a remarkable break with the unionist past.

That these influential organs, which range from the liberal left to the conservative right should have decided to back Alex Salmond for First Minister, is a tribute to the effectiveness of the SNP’s well-funded campaign. But this wasn’t all down to Souter’s shilling. Salmond’s strategy has been to allow Labour to lose by mounting a negative and scare-mongering campaign about independence – the one issue which this election wasn’t about, because of the promised referendum. Labour played exactly to the script.

Brown aides have already started the process of dumping blame on Jack McConnell. Press briefings over the weekend suggested that the First Minister will be “assassinated” as early as Friday. Even if Labour somehow manage to scrape back in, McConnell’s days are numbered, we are told, as Wendy Alexander is pressed into service by Prime Minister Brown. If Wendy survives, that is.

Of course, McConnell clearly carries a lot of responsibility, and his TV has been dire. His worst contribution was the attempt to “fix” the council tax banding – an ill-considered and incoherent move that rebounded and distracted attention from the many weaknesses of the SNP’s local income tax. Tony Blair was little help either. Though personally popular on the stump, the Prime Minister’s high profile visits served only to import the negatives of Iraq and cash for honours.

However, when it comes to Scotland, Blair always defers to Brown. It was the Chancellor who set the parameters of the Scottish campaign. It was Brown who ordered a rerun of 1999 – “divorce is an expensive business” – failing to understand that Scotland is a different country now. Not as easily scared as it was before the creation of the Scottish parliament.

To his credit, McConnell understood the change and wanted to present a much more positive, pro-Scottish, “patriotic” campaign, talking up Scotland’s economic prospects and urging comparison with other small countries in Europe. He wanted a campaign that said Scotland could and would make its way in the world, and that the Scottish parliament would acquire any new powers, as and when they were necessary, to ensure that success.

But the Chancellor had other ideas. He decreed, in that interview with Scotland on Sunday, that Holyrood had all the powers it was going to get – a perverse edict, which flies in the face of constitutional reality. Brown also engineered the economic case, built on the dubious premise that the Scottish deficit was actually a “union dividend”; raising the phoney spectre of “triple tax grabs” by the SNP, of huge spending cuts, of Scotland being thrown out of the EU. All the tired old unionist bogeys.

Well, it clearly hasn’t worked. People want something better in Scotland than another four years of Lib-Lab mediocrity – someone with a bit of style and verve in Holyrood who will make them feel good about themselves. Many seem persuaded that if no one else can do the job, then they should let Alex Salmond show what he’s made of.

But, hey, look on the bright side: this might not be a bad time for Labour to loose. They have four years to sort themselves out in opposition, decoupling themselves from London Labour, while an unstable SNP-led coalition, with inexperienced ministers, attempts to implement a massive spending programme at the very moment when public spending is being reined in. Alex Salmond may be smiling fit to burst, but he may not be so happy when he opens the books.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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