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Bendy Wendy’s Wendyrendum. Labour discovers independence and says the people must decide.

It has been, by common consent, Wendy Alexander’s worst week since she became leader – worse even than the row over her dodgy donations. She began it defying Gordon Brown by calling for an early referendum on independence, making it look as if the prime minister had lost control of Scotland; she ended it with a humiliating u-turn, pretending that she didn’t really want a referendum after all. The press has pronounced sentence of political death and is waiting for it to be carried out. But before she goes to the gallows, perhaps we should for a moment look at what Wendy was trying to do. There was method in her madness.

The situation Labour faces in Scotland is dire and she is not the only one in the party who believes that something drastic has to be done to stop the Salmond steamroller. There’s little point in Labour sitting on its hands and watching the SNP attract more and more Scottish voters to its cause as the Alex Salmond runs a highly successful devolved government – the kind of government Labour should have run when it was in office.

Not only is Alex Salmond’s personal popularity an astonishing 70% ahead of the Labour leader, the polls indicate that the SNP would probably return with a landslide if there were a Holyrood election tomorrow. And in recent polls, such as System Three in the Sunday Herald three weeks ago, there have been signs that the nationalists are beginning to win the argument for independence. Doing nothing wasn’t an option.

Most of Scottish Labour’s political problems arise from its image as a poodle of London Labour. Labour’s former First Minister, Jack McConnell, always seemed to be looking over his shoulder at his political masters, and was – we now know – often treated with casual contempt by the ‘godfather’ Gordon Brown. McConnell was widely criticised for failing to assert himself on issues like Iraq, Trident, nuclear power, attendance allowances, asylum detention. The SNP taunted Labour’s inability to “stand up for Scotland”.

Now, there really only is one way of standing up for yourself, and that is to get up off your knees. And to give Wendy Alexander credit where it is due, this is what she tried to do, even if she has been knocked back down again by a great clunking fist. But there really was no other way – you can’t rebel by consensus.

There is huge frustration in the Labour Party at the SNP being allowed to introduce a raft of popular social democratic policies – like phasing out prescription charges, ending ring fencing, curbing right to buy and kick-starting council housing. Labour had to get the SNP off their turf, by forcing Alex Salmond to start talking about nationalism again – about scary things like currencies, borders, national debt, separatism, Europe. One way to do this, clearly, was to attempt to bring forward the independence referendum and force the SNP to start showing its hand instead of allowing it to shelve the issue until 2010. Hence the “bring it on” declaration on the Politics Show on Sunday.

That much had been agreed with London. However, it was when Wendy Alexander started talking about holding her own early referendum that thinks started to go pear-shaped. Over the past week Wendy Alexander has been in almost daily contact with Gordon Brown, but it seems the messages got confused. But it seemsBrown thought she was merely challenging the SNP to put ITS referendum bill before Holyrood, instead of waiting until 2010, not proposing an independence referendum as a matter of principle. Brown told the Tory leader David Cameron at Prime Ministers Question Time on Wednesday that Wendy had not called for a referendum on independence “now”, when she clearly had. And she repeated it the next day at First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood – as clear and unequivocal an act of defiance as anyone could have expected.

It looked as if the Prime Minister had now lost control of his own Scottish turf. The exchanges of letters with the Tory leader, David Cameron, did nothing to clarify matters. There was simply no way of reconciling what the Prime Minister said about the referendum with what the leader of the Scottish Labour group in Holyrood said. Something had to give.

As we report today, team Wendy suggest that it was Brown who bottled it and simply couldn’t bring himself to call for a referendum in front of David Cameron – largely because the PM didn’t want to be taunted about of the his reluctance to hold a referendum on the EU Treaty. It was a case of Gordon playing Macavity again – trying not to be at the scene of the crime.

Grumbling erupted almost immediately on the Labour benches in Westminster, where Wendy Alexander was being compared to a “suicide bomber” determined to destroy the political credibility of the UK Labour Party for her own selfish interests. Is this what Wendy Alexander is about? Is she determined to blow Labour’s UK credibility to smithereens just so she can portray herself as the new “Madame Ecosse”?

Well, some in Team Wendy believe that Brown has already blown himself to bits and has effectively lost the next UK general election. This would leave Alex Salmond, holding his autumn 2010 referendum against the backdrop of a Tory administration in Westminster. This could turn the referendum into a vote, not on the constitution, but on the restoration of Tory rule in Scotland, which is why it seemed imperative to force the referendum issue sooner rather than later.

What began as a reasonable political strategy for undermining the SNP turned into a clash of authority between Wendy and Gordon. The Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, was left in an impossible position trying not to say anything at all while being pursued by the Scottish media. If he backed Wendy he risked the wrath of Gordon; if he backed the PM he risked forcing Wendy’s resignation.

We are told that Wendy Alexander has now been told to “pipe down” and that the “men in grey kilts” are preparing to give her her marching orders. However, I am not sure if there are any men in grey kilts, and I don’t see any obvious replacement for Wendy as Scottish leader. And she is unlikely to break the habit of a lifetime and stop talking.

However, she has now destroyed what credibility she had left by agreeing yesterday’s abject u-turn and by pretending that she hadn’t been serious about calling for a referendum in the first place. The whole exercise has only confirmed that Labour in Scotland simply cannot go its own way, at least under Wendy Alexander. That in the end, Labour does what it is told and is unable to speak for itself, let alone speak for Scotland.

This should have been a turning point for Labour in Scotland: the moment when it finally asserted itself against London and reinvented itself as the Scottish Labour Party, a political entity in its own right, with its own leadership, policy agenda and organisation. Wendy was right in her analysis of the political situation, but she clearly lacked the political authority to achieve the necessary outcome. She has been slapped down. Labour has been made to look absurd and the only people who benefit are the SNP.

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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