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3 July 2008

Brown’s Scottish play

For 50 years, Scotland was unshakeably Labour. But a string of party blunders has lost it - and the

By Iain Macwhirter

For someone so intelligent, it was a pretty dumb way to lose your job. The Sorbonne-educated Wendy Alexander was feted as the brightest and the best the Scottish Labour Party had to offer. Yet she was forced to resign as leader because of her failure to register a few hundred pounds’ worth of donations to a leadership election campaign that never actually happened. The Scottish Labour Party has an almost North Korean pre dilection for uncontested elections, and Alexander was elected leader last August unopposed.

This really looks like carelessness. Alexander is the second Scottish Labour leader to resign over an expenses scandal in the short life of the Scottish Parliament. The Labour first minister Henry McLeish was forced to resign in 2001 over his failure to declare funds raised by subletting his Fife constituency office. He said it was a “muddle not a fiddle” – but went anyway.

Perhaps Scottish Labour politicians have some genetic propensity to resign. But with the Nat ionalists in government, and the Tories getting their act together with the Clarke report on the constitution, Labour can no longer afford to indulge its addiction to defenestration.

In May 2007, Labour gave up its 50-year hegemony over Scottish politics when it lost the Holyrood election and allowed Alex Salmond to form the first Scottish National Party (SNP) administration in Scottish history. Mind you, at first Labour insisted that coming second by only one seat represented a great moral victory. Gordon Brown wanted his party to remain in office by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but they wouldn’t play.

Alexander’s historic mission was to wake the party up to the reality of defeat, to lead Labour out of its male-dominated, post-industrial west Scotland ghetto and into the modern age of new Labour diversity. A protégée of the PM, and sister to Douglas Alexander, the UK Development Sec retary, she seemed to have everything going for her – even widespread respect in the often curmudgeonly Scottish press.

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However, she took a rather unexpected turn soon after she was installed and began arguing for a referendum on independence – the policy of the SNP. Labour has steadfastly opposed a referendum on the grounds that it would endanger the integrity of the Union. Her logic was that there is still a majority in Scotland for staying in the UK and that by calling Salmond’s bluff, they could deliver a stunning blow to the fledgling Nationalist government. Brown didn’t buy it.

He still didn’t buy it in May when Alexander went ahead and announced the new policy anyway, to the fury of the Scottish Labour group of MPs in Westminster. When challenged by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, Brown denied that his Scottish leader had actually endorsed the policy – which she manifestly had. She told me a week before her departure that she regarded “giving Scots the right to choose” as one of her greatest achievements in office. The others were setting up the Calman Commission on constitutional change and pre paring the intellectual case for more tax powers for Holyrood. David Cairns, Labour’s Scottish Office minister, has dismissed these as preoccupations of the “McChattering classes”.

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Labour MPs didn’t exactly leap to Alexander’s defence when the Scottish Parliament’s standards committee moved to suspend her for one day for failing to register campaign donations within the required 30 days. A faintly ridiculous misdemeanour, and a token punishment. She could have remained in office, as the verdict had to be ratified by the full parliament in the autumn. But she had clearly decided that she’d had enough, and most of her party agreed.

Anyway, as we know, Scottish Labour leaders have a low resignation threshold. Alexander herself had resigned once before, in 2002, when she was a Scottish Executive minister and fell out with her civil servants. It’s what they do.

These Scottish antics may seem risible, but Alexander’s departure is a severe blow to Brown, already shattered by Crewe and Nantwich and humiliated by the BNP in Henley. After Alexander’s fall, no seat in Scotland is safe. The SNP is now expected to win the ultra-safe Glasgow East by-election, caused by the resig nation (another one) of the veteran Labour MP David Marshall, even though it requires a 22 per cent swing.

The Tories are determined to curb the voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster, but soon they may not have to bother. Even in its darkest days in the 1980s, Labour could always depend on Scotland to deliver a block of MPs – it’s why so many cabinet members are Scots. Brown has depended on his loyal contingent of Scots to secure his majority in the Commons, but not, perhaps, for very much longer.

With a lacklustre Labour front bench in Holyrood and no inspiring replacement for Alexander, Labour is looking into a Scottish abyss. There is now no credible challenge to the immensely popular SNP government. Labour, through its incompetence and infirmity of purpose, has handed Scotland to Alex Salmond on a plate and hastened the break-up of Britain.

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