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A referendum in Scotland is inevitable – and Labour realise it.

What Wendy Alexander didn’t say in Aviemore turned out to be rather more interesting than what she actually said. Her first conference speech as leader did not once mention her Constitutional Commission. Since this is her flagship policy, her one distinctive contribution to Scottish Labour politics, this is intriguing to say the least. A bit like Tony Blair not mentioning public service reform in the year he declared war on the monopoly provision in health care.

Nor did she lay into the SNP proposals for a proportional referendum on independence, as had been well trailed in the media. We’d been led to believe that she was going to rubbish Alex Salmond’s idea of a multi-option referendum using the Single Transferable Vote because it would amount to a “gerrymandering” of the constitution. Because it would bundle Scotland out of the UK on a fistful of second preference votes.

So why so shy? Well, one suspects that the intervention by Scotland’s favourite billionaire, and former Labour donor, Sir Tom Hunter, may have had something to do with it. On the day of her speech he come out demanding a single question referendum as soon as possible on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. This was an unfortunate coincidence and would have required Wendy Alexander, at the very least, to give coherent reasons why he is wrong. Her intention had simply been to attack the method of the SNP ballot – the Single Transferable Vote.

Actually, a multi-option referendum is not Salmond’s position and never has been. All along the SNP has called, like Sir Tom, for a single question, as is clearly laid out in their white paper, “Choosing Scotland’s Future” published last August. The question they would put is this: “I agree that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the government of the UK so that Scotland becomes and independent state. Yes, or No”. No multi-optoin jiggery pokery there.

Alex Salmond only started talking about a third option because people like me kept arguing that the status quo wasn’t the only alternative to independence, and that federalism – or devolution ‘max’ – should be given a go also. It has generally been the NON-nationalist voices in civic Scotland who have argued against presenting Scots with only one choice, on the grounds that this would polarise the constitutional debate and narrow the democratic choice. The outcome of a single question might lead to a spurious vindication of the status quo and leave federalism out in the cold.

Indeed, this used to be the position of the late Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown, back in the days when Labour still had confidence that it could defeat the SNP in any head to head vote. In the Herald of 13 April 1992, Donald Dewar called for a multi-option referendum, saying: “It must offer the choice which has dominated the election campaign in Scotland. It must cover the range of options that reflects the mood for change. That means it must include the convention scheme, the status quo and independence.” When Alex Salmond started talking about putting another option on the ballot paper he was not articulating the SNP’s policy, but Labour’s.

Times have changed of course since 1992, but not all that much. We are again faced with a multiple choice constitution. As soon as the Scottish opposition parties, under Wendy’s leadership, set up the Constitutional Commission they revived the constitutional issue in precisely that 1992 form. They have promised to come up with a new constitutional package and disowned the status quo.

Now, Wendy Alexander chose not to celebrate the formation of the Calman Commission in her speech. This was uncharacteristic modesty from the “perfect” Labour leader. Surely, the commission is the key plank in Wendy’s platform for the next Scottish election, her defining policy. But turned down an opportunity to explain and commend it to her party and to the Scottish people. Why?

One suspects, again, that it was interventions off-stage that counselled her to silence. The former Labour minister, Brian Wilson, had just laid into Wendy and her constitutional clique. Mr Wilson, a long term opponent of devolution said on Saturday that: “As long as Labour continues to go down what is essentially a nationalist agenda of commissions and constitutions and tampering with this and tampering with that the outcome is pretty predictable – the beneficiaries will be the nationalists. Labour and the others who have joined them in this venture are doing the job for them…To be honest I would rather have a referendum than this sort of incremental nonsense of fiddling about with powers.”

Now you may wonder how a member of the Scottish Labour Party could get away with comments that are so critical of his own leader. But of course Wendy is not his leader because she is not the leader of the Scottish Labour Party – she is only the leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, and has little authority outside of Holyrood. The Labour MEP, David Martin, also contradicted party policy by supporting a referendum, and most Labour MPs in Aviemore seem to have been dissing their leaderene with impunity.

It seems likely that Wendy Alexander pulled her passages on the commission and the referendum because she didn’t want to ignite a unionist rebellion in the ranks of MPs. She left it to Gordon Brown to use the ‘c’ word, because he of course is above challenge in the Labour Party. Strange days indeed when the nominal leader afraid to address her own policy at her party conference.

But the reality is that she will have to bend to the inevitability of a referendum. It is absurd and undemocratic for Labour to deny Scotland a say on its own constitutional future. By what right do they veto the people’s will? A referendum is the accepted democratic means of resolving constitutional issues in our political system. We have had referendums on Europe, the Northern Ireland constitutional settlement and on Scottish devolution – twice. Labour is actively supporting a referendum in Wales in 2011 on the new options for Cardiff. It is politically unsustainable and morally unjustifiable for Labour to deny the people of Scotland a say.

Anyway, what are Labour afraid of? All recent opinion polls indicate that formal independence is supported by
fewer than a third of Scottish voters. Or is Labour now so enfeebled and unconfident that it believes it is no longer capable of winning any vote in Scotland? Better to get the u-turn in now, Wendy. Listen to Tom Hunter and call the damn thing.

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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