GB’s moment of truth: a retrospective

We are now only a few days away from a crucial Scottish election, and a week or two away from the start of a Labour leadership campaign that is likely to pave the way for Gordon Brown to become Prime Minister.

The Green Ribbon has had a lot to say about both prospects for some time and, at the risk of being caught by events, perhaps now is a good time to review the way things are developing.

I have believed for years that Gordon Brown’s ascent to the Premiership would be a fateful moment for the union. Back in September, when it became clear that the Labour leadership contest was likely to coincide with a close-run election in Scotland, I suggested four scenarios for the way things could pan out.

It now appears that scenarios 3 and 4 can be ruled out, as they both relied on the emergence of an English Labour leader.

At this stage, the signals from Tony Blair, David Milliband and John Reid suggest that the prospect of a Blairite challenge to Brown is all but dead. With the sole exception of Charles Clarke, the Blairites have thrown in the towel in the full knowledge of what is likely to come on Thursday, so they cannot use a bad election result as an excuse to mount a belated challenge.

It’s still possible that Clarke or a left-winger, most likely John McDonnell, could get on the ballot paper, but last week’s Yougov poll for the Sunday Times suggests neither has a hope of beating Brown.

That leaves us with two possibilities, a Brown Premiership coinciding with a Labour-led Scottish Executive in Scenario 1 and and an SNP-led executive in scenario 2.

At this stage in the campaign it looks as if it would take the mother of all chokes for the SNP not to emerge as the largest party in Holyrood on Thursday. That does not automatically mean they will form an executive. Labour could still garner a majority with the help of the Liberal Democrats. There has even been talk of a pan-unionist coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.

However, its beginning to look as if the parties themselves don’t expect things to turn out that way. While the SNP are doing their best to appear statesmanlike, Labour are descending into recriminations, and the Lib Dems are suggesting that the largest party would have the moral authority to govern.

September’s scenario 2 could well be on the cards.

2 Constitutional Crisis
Gordon Brown is Prime Minister. Alex Salmond is First Minister.

This is perhaps most likely if the Labour leadership is resolved
before the Holyrood election, but it could still happen afterwards if
Labour decides Brown is the man to save the union. Brown’s authority
would be undermined from the outset and there would be major clashes
between London and Edinburgh, especially over a possible independence

This scenario could have momentous consequences, but it looks increasingly possible.

Even if the SNP emerge as the largest party, and form an executive, it does not necessarily mean they could win an independence referendum. However, It would be a mistake to ignore the powerful dynamic that would be set in motion.

The danger for Gordon Brown is that he would be caught in a pincer movement between the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England.

If Labour’s ‘Scottish Raj’ is discredited at home, it will be easier for the Tories to raise the West Lothian Question in England. Likewise, the possibility of a Conservative Government at Westminster will strengthen the SNP’s case for independence in Scotland.

In my essay on the English question last June, I suggested that "the logic of their situation is slowly but relentlessly forcing the
Tories to adopt a more radically devolutionist stance than Labour."

Similar analyses have lately begun appearing in organs with rather more insight into Conservative stategy than the Green Ribbon.

{Tory Chairman] Mr Maude’s officials have been secretly drawing up the outline of a
‘velvet divorce’ with the Scottish Conservatives, which would give the
Scottish Tories a new name, a distinct identity, and make the
Conservatives officially as well as in practice a party exclusively
devoted to seeking power in England and Wales. However benignly it was
presented, such a split would, in effect, mean the final Tory retreat
from Scotland, a historic fissure in British Conservatism, and the
death of a party defined in many minds by its One Nation Unionism.

But the harder one examines the situation, the clearer it is that
there is little left to salvage and little face left to save. (Spectator)

The Financial Times neatly sums up the emerging situation:

This, in short, is the terrain on which the political tension between
the Scots and English will be played out over the next few years. An
SNP-led administration in Scotland is unlikely to be strong enough to
pose a serious challenge to the Union in policy terms. But at
Westminster, the Conservatives are desperately seeking policies and
initiatives that will allow them to outmanoeuvre Britain’s Scottish
prime minister. If Mr Brown gains the upper hand over Mr Cameron in the
coming year, the Tory leader may feel he has no option but to
reconfigure the playing field on which British politics is fought. (FT)



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