War divides the chieftains

Observations on Scotland

To the discomfort of Jack McConnell, the First Minister, the Scottish parliamentary election on 1 May is in danger of turning into a referendum on war with Iraq. Tony Blair, secure in his Westminster majority, can weather dissent from angry ex-ministers, MPs and trade unionists. McConnell cannot afford to be so sanguine.

McConnell, who leads a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, was expecting to trundle back to Holyrood and resume business as usual. The only party he feared was the apathy party, as pollsters warned that turnout could drop below 50 per cent.

The gathering storm has changed all that. A campaign that was supposed to be fought on devolved issues - hospital closures, drugs courts, business rates - has become the setting for a national row. Instead of arguing over waiting lists, the First Minister could be commenting on casualty lists. John Swinney, leader of the Scottish National Party, may find Iraq's constitutional future more urgent than the United Kingdom's.

Labour is split at Holyrood as it is at Westminster. McConnell's vain hope that no one would mention the war was shattered when Susan Deacon, the former health minister, put down a motion describing a pre-emptive strike on Iraq as "neither necessary nor justified". Attitudes to war in Scotland are broadly in line with the rest of the UK. The difference is that in Scotland, there is competition for the role of peace party. At Westminster and Hyde Park Corner, the role of chief doubter has fallen to Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats. It is harder for Jim Wallace, his Scottish colleague, to voice reservations from inside a coalition cabinet. This leaves the way open for the Scottish National Party to woo the anti-war vote. It was Swinney who addressed the crowds at the Glasgow demonstration on 15 February, while Wallace was at a vigil in his Orkney constituency. Like Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP has be-come a peace party - and Swinney believes that public opinion is on his side.

The SNP, like the Liberal Democrats, says it wants a second UN resolution before any attack on Iraq. If such a resolution is passed, logic demands the party should switch to supporting a war. Wallace's position will depend on Charles Kennedy, but Swinney is trying to get off the hook by insisting on a specific mandate for military action.

He knows that a sizeable minority of Scots voters - somewhere between 20 and 27 per cent - oppose war in any event. Their aspiring champion is Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party, which dismisses the UN Security Council as "susceptible to bribes and blackmail". Sheridan, the SSP's sole representative at Holyrood, could pick up half a dozen seats through the electoral list system, taking votes in Labour strongholds. Labour's campaign has been thrown off course, with activists reluctant to canvass and unions slow to help. Polls suggest the party could lose up to nine seats at Holyrood, forcing McConnell to rely more heavily on the Liberal Democrats if he wants to stay in power. Even the possibility of a minority SNP administration has been mentioned.

But if military action is swift and successful, the war could be over by election day. If Tony Blair is vindicated, McConnell may be able to bask in his reflected glory. The outcome is as uncertain as a UN vote.

Kirsty Milne writes for the Scotsman