Its been an intriguing few days in Scottish politics.Not for the first time, it seems the Holyrood-Westminster divide in the Labour Party has cracked wide open.
A meeting on January 28 – attended by Brown, chancellor Alistair
Darling, justice secretary Jack Straw, Scottish secretary Des Browne,
and civil servant Jim Gallagher – was held to discuss the union and
The summit, of which the Sunday Herald has been given a full account
by a UK government source, focused on [Labour Scottish Parliament leader Wendy] Alexander’s commission plan.
The prime minister said he found the body’s remit to be acceptable,
but that he wanted the UK government, not Holyrood, to take the lead in
setting it up. He also said he did not believe the word commission was
appropriate; instead he favoured "working party" or "review". The
Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP then said the government, rather than the
Scottish parliament, should consult on membership of the review. (Sunday Herald, 10 February)
Iain MacWhirter sums up the impact of Brown’s intervention:
Now Brown is seeking to control a committee which has been created by a vote of the Scottish parliament, and which is supposed to be
financed by the Scottish parliament. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives should be careful before they buy into this exercise. I can’t see the justification for financing it out of Holyrood funds if it is reduced to the status of a UK government review. If this is another of PM’s reviews, then why shouldn’t he pay for it?
The Wendy Commission will have no legitimacy in Scottish eyes if it is seen to be driven by the Westminster political establishment. (Scottish Herald, 10 February)
In the wake of the Sunday Herald story, a Downing Street spokesman denied that there was an attempt to water down Alexander’s proposals.
"The Scottish Parliament has been keen to engage the UK government in the review process.
the Scotland Office and Ministry of Justice announced on 31 January, the government welcomes the review and is considering how best to take forward discussions on the review.
"The Secretary of State for Scotland has had productive meetings with the Scottish political parties and will bring forward proposals after consultation with other political parties." (Scotsman, 11 February)
As the Telegraph’s Alan Cochrane notes, the reference to a ‘review’ rather than to a commission is telling in itself.
Although they look like denials, in fact nothing in
these statements detracts from the assertion – which I know to be true
– that Mr Brown wants to take control of the project.
do they rebut the claim, which again I know to be true, that far from
setting up a Constitutional Commission, as Ms Alexander and the other
Scottish political leaders had envisaged, Mr Brown wants a lesser title
for it. (Telegraph, 12 February)
Scottish Office Minister David Cairns stirred the pot further in an interview on Tuesday:
Launching the commission last year, Ms Alexander
proposed significant new powers for Scotland to set levels of some
taxes and to be assigned a share of other taxes set in London.
However, when it was suggested to Mr Cairns that he was not keen on
giving more tax powers to the Scottish Parliament and that it was up to
Holyrood to make the case, he replied: "Yes. The government’s position
is, is that we think the current fiscal arrangements benefit Scotland,
that there are stable, transparent increases in public spending in
Scotland. There is no case for the massive restructuring of that. In
any case, the Scottish Parliament has powers to levy additional taxes
if they think that’s what they need and they haven’t used them.’ (The Herald, 12 February)
That drew a rebuke from a senior member of Alexander’s team today:
The aide said: "David Cairns and some of his colleagues are out of step with party thinking.
"I would imagine that the bulk of the Scottish party believe in the
dynamic of the situation, which is that if you ask the ordinary man or
woman in the street do you think the Scottish Parliament should have
more powers?’ the answer overwhelmingly will be yes’.
"David Cairns has to realise that. There’s a very clear mood for
change in the context of the commission and for looking at ways to
strengthen the devolution settlement.
"If you look at Scottish politics from a London perspective, then
you don’t see how things have changed post-devolution," the source
added. (The Herald, February 13)
According to the original Sunday Herald story, Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster ‘believe Alexander is "doing the work" of the SNP.’ Surely that charge should be applied to the Westminster politicans At a stroke, they have undermined the commission plan, the Scottish Parliament which voted for it, and the Scottish Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders who backed it.
Scottish nationalists have claimed all along that the commission was simply a spoiling exercise in response to the Scottish Government’s National Conversation. That charge will now carry much greater weight.
Many people assumed that Alexander’s strategy had the backing of Gordon Brown. To let the commission plan get this far and then squash it is surely the worst of all possible approaches. It shows a remarkably cavalier attitude to an issue which is crucial for Brown and for Labour. Once again, Westminster Labour has played totally into Alex Salmond’s hands.