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How Wendy could change things

Sales of Wendies collapsed yesterday, as confidence slumped in Labour’s leader-in-waiting. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times suggesting that only 7% of voters would like to see her as first minister has led political forecasters to mark her down. Only bankrupt Nicol Stephens are selling worse in the turbulent post-Salmond market.

Her failure to come up with any new political products has also damaged Wendy’s share price. She marked her candidacy by promising to combat “electronic stranger danger” – which is omething to do with paedophiles on the internet targetting “cotton wool kids” kept at home by parents are fearful of abusers on the streets. But creating yet another nameless dread to keep parents awake at night is not the ideal way to herald a new political dawn.

Some hope might be nice; a vision or two; perhaps a great speech of reconciliation with middle Scotland, promising to challenge metropolitan centralism, London dominance, of everything from broadcasting to the Olympic Games. Come to think of it, she could borrow from Jack McConnell’s valedictory interview in the Sunday press yesterday in which he suggested British institutions like the BBC, sports organisations and energy regulators were a greater danger to the unity of the UK than the SNP. “It’s almost like we’re under the radar”, said the soon-to-be-former First Minister. He also criticised Scottish Labour MPs for undermining his attempts to fly the Scottish flag.

There is an obvious agenda here for Wendy and doesn’t mean dressing in tartan and singing Scots Wha’ Hae’. She needs to take on the city state of London, which is draining the life out of the rest of the country – not just Scotland, but all non metropolitan areas. It is not acceptable for organisations like the BBC to slash their investment in Scotland, or for the London Olympics to rob the national lottery fund, or for Ofgem to charge discriminatory grid connection fees.

Nor is it acceptable for investment and jobs to drain relentlesly south, denuding Scotland of professionals, skilled workers and graduates, year after year. Scotland’s historically deficient growth rates are not a result of lack of talent or some kind of genetic failure of enterprise, but of structural and essentially political imbalances in the British economy. These need appropriate economic and fiscal measures to rebalance the country – it has nothing to do with independence.

London needs to be saved from itself. It has created a monster in the overblown, over-leveraged City, which has crowded out all other forms of economic activity on these islands, and created a perilously over priced housing market. Scotland needs cheaper housing as much as it needs lower business taxes to keep the economically active population in Scotland and prevent the nation becoming a retirement home. But why couldn’t Labour demand both? If the ultra-unionist Ian Paisley can call for cuts in corporation taxes in Northern Ireland, to help business in the province compete with the Irish Republic, why not Scotland?

These are the kind of thing that Wendy Alexander should be saying if she wants to turn the tide against the SNP, not serving up reheated warnings about the economic consequences of independence. At least consider them seriously. She needs to take a lesson from her mentor, Gordon Brown, who lost no time in office distancing himself from his predecessor, even as he praised him.

Brown tossed “sofa government” onto a skip and promised to scrap the constitutional provisions that underpinned elective dictatorship. If Brown can announce the most radical constitutional reforms to the UK in a generation, why can’t the First Minister of Scotland? Wendy could wreck Alex Salmond’s 100 days by calling for a second cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, to consider the results of the “national conversation’ which has been launched by Alex Salmond. The SNP should of course be invited.

And if the convention decides that a new referendum is necessary to resolve the independence question, then why not? What better way to clear the air? The weekend polls confirmed that formal independence is supported by only around 23% of Scots voters, so this is hardly high-risk option. Alex Salmond has agreed that such a referendum would be a “once in a generation” thing and that the SNP wouldn’t be coming back with yet more “neverendums” until it got the answer it wanted. This is a tremendous opportunity for a confident Scottish Labour leader.

Who dares wins. Of course, Scottish Labour MPs would howl “betrayal”, pour scorn on “lady Braveheart”, dismiss her as naive – but that would be entirely to the good. Wendy Alexander needs to take on her own party before she can be in any position to take on the nationalists. She would find widespread support in Scotland for a determined break with the Labourism of the past, which has led to a moribund, impoverished party barely able to contest elections. As she said to Jim Sillars in that note after she resigned from the executive in 2001, the Scottish Labour Party hasn’t had a fresh idea since 1906. Well, maybe it’s time for some. Come the hour, cometh the woman.

She should be banging her fist on Gordon’s table until he makes her leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, not just leader of the MSPs in Holyrood. She should be given control of all the party functions north of the border, with freedom to develop an independent political agenda, and authority to ram it down the throats of the unionist old guard. That would show Scotland that you don’t need trousers to have cojones. Or a kilt.

After a referendum, she could declare the independence/ unionism dichotomy is history. That Scotland is a confident nation which makes its own way in the world, by taking whatever powers – economic or otherwise – are required, without apologising for itself, and without fearing the consequences. The truth is that Britain needs Scotland as much as Scotland needs the UK, and the threat of an independent Scotland actually is a source of strength for Wendy Alexander. If Scotland broke away, the UK would lose a lot of its clout in international forums, and it would also lose valuable oil and renewable energy reserves. Why should it be left to Alex Salmond to play the Scottish card?

It’s rather been assumed that Salmond and his team regard Wendy Alexander with contempt, as a mouthy disaster with zero voter appeal. I don’t believe that is entirely the case. I haven’t heard Alex Salmond dis her the way he dissed Jack McConnell, and privately the Nationalists realise that with the passing of Tony Blair and Jack McConnell they are losing their best assets. Alex Salmond will treat her, initially at least, with respect just as he treated Brown with respect. And if Gordon and Wendy work apart together, the only way is up.

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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