Alex Massie

Wendy’s Referendum Problem

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A reader has chided me for failing to publish more political comment lately. But what more - despite the acres of newsprint devoted to the matter - has there been to say about the Obama-Clinton match-up that was not said six weeks ago? Precious little. She still can't win; her continuing campaign makes Obama's job in November more difficult.

Meanwhile, in Scotland Wendy Alexander, the pocket-sized Scottish Labour leader, announces that she's fed-up with Alex Salmond winning all the headlines month after month and, consequently, says she's quite happy to have a referendum on independence after all. This, despite constant assertions that it was the last thing the country wanted or needed. In London, this has been interpreted as a humiliating blow to Gordon Brown. Wee Wendy, after all, is one of his creations. Doubtless there is some truth to this and Brown, whose ministry is probably over anyway, could have done without this extra blow to his authority.

But then again, Brown has accepted - or, more probably, been forced to accept - the new political dispensation with greater equanimity than much of the press. He's leaving the Scottish Question to the Scottish Labour Party. This is probably sensible: the electorate north of the border is not, I suspect, likely to take kindly to lectures from Brown in London. He may speak for Britain, but he doesn't speak for Scotland. Secondly, this looks like being a tough fight and ever since Labour entered power in 1997 Brown has made it his business to be absent without leave whenever there's an awkward or embarrassing political dilemma that requires resolving.

So if Brown has disowned Wendy, what of Wendy herself? Alas, her conversion to the referendum cause looks, well, positively Brownian. It's a tactical move not a strategic shift; it smacks of panic not strength. On the one hand it seems clear that she felt the need to distance herself from the crippled Prime Minister - a necessary move since she's unlikely to land many blows on Salmond if each time she jabs he can move away and say "there she goes again, doing her master in London's bidding"; on the other it seems she could have chosen a better target for her fire than her own foot.

Labour and the Tories like to accuse the Nationalists of being "opportunists" and of course that's exactly what they are. They're slippery, awkward southpaws boxing against ploddingly predictable orthodox fighters. The public seems not to mind this since, as they know what the SNP are actually about, they hold them to a lower standard of consistency than they do the older, "traditional" parties who, much to their vexation, must sometimes wonder if they are playing to the same set of rules at all.

But there you have it. Wendy must have thought she'd called Salmond's bluff. After all, the widespread suspicion is that he doesn't really want to have a referendum in 2010. How better to confound him then that to press for one now?  alas, poor Wendy, the time for this has passed. This was exactly the ploy you should have seized last May. But no, back then you talked about hwo a referendum was a waste of time, how there was no demand for it and you pilloried the nationalists' talk of having a vote.

But they were bluffing then and hold stronger cards now. For one, you've permitted the Labour party to be outflanked on the populist left; for another the nationalists are happier about their referendum prospects than they were last year. This poll puts support for independence at 41%.

And of course you look like either a) a fool or b) a headless chicken right now since, before you talked about a "snap" referendum you endorsed your own tri-party constitutional review process that will, in time, deliver its views on what, if any, additional powers Holyrood needs if it is to work more effectively. Assuming that the upshot of that process was a three question referendum - independence, more powers, status quo* - it was generally thought that Labour would campaign on the "more powers" platform.

Now although that policy necessarily bought a degree of nationalist logic - which is, after all, also the prevailing drift of the electorate - it at least made some sense. Now there's this lunge to find the last remaining magic bullet that might kill Salmond. But it looks panicked and hasty: a spur of the moment decision, not one borne of wisdom or calculation. What happens to Wendy's own constitutional review policy now?

The moment, as I say and said then, for the Unionist push for a two question - independence or status quo - referendum was after the election. It's foolish to believe that moment is still there. It isn't. The game has moved on. So, wee Wendy gave up a favourable position last May and won nothing for doing so, now she seeks to fight the same point on ground markedly less favourable to her.

Verily, she's a Brownite.

*The Nationalists should press for a fourth option: "dissolution of the Scottish Parliament" since that will attract support from the "status quo", making it more likely that independence or more powers get over the 50% winning line. win a plurality. (Thanks reader, Andrew. You're right.)

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.