SCOTTISH Labour leader Johann Lamont yesterday tried to head off a rebellion in her own party against a plan for greater devolution for Scotland, insisting it was not an attempt to “appease” the SNP.
In her speech to the party’s conference in Inverness, she sought to reach out to sceptics among Scottish Labour’s MPs at Westminster, who this weekend raised a range of concerns about more powers for Holyrood.
Lamont specifically tried to reassure them over fears that more devolution would mean a cut in Scottish MPs at Westminster.
Lamont claimed the SNP was ignoring the major financial challenges facing the country and insisted the powers she really wanted were the ones Alex Salmond already had over health and education.
The speech came after the party’s Devolution Commission published radical proposals last week for extended powers at the Scottish Parliament, including the devolution of income tax to Holyrood.
The report exposed tensions in the party between those wanting a new push on devolution to counter arguments for independence, and those nervous about tinkering with Scotland’s place within the UK.
Lamont said: “What it is is the starting point of where we agree how devolution is to be developed. What it is not is an attempt to appease the SNP. I am well aware that you don’t appease lions by throwing more Christians at them. And I will not walk an inch down the road to independence.” She added: “Labour created the Scottish Parliament because we believe in devolution. And we have continued to lead the debate on devolution. We have begun a dialogue with the people of Scotland about what powers the Scottish Parliament should have. But, can I tell you today what powers I really want? They are the powers Alex Salmond already has. The power over Scotland’s education. The power over the health service.”
She accused Salmond of trying to make the political debate one of “Scotland versus England”. “It isn’t,” she said. “The fight is Scotland versus Salmond and it is one Scotland is going to win.”
Providing the first details of a policy platform that Labour may take into the 2016 election, she revealed that Labour plans to extend land reform proposals so that communities could purchase land even when the landowner is not a willing seller.
On the position of MPs – whose number could be reduced if Holyrood were to gain more powers – she insisted: “I do not want a settlement that reduces Scotland’s influence in Westminster one iota.”
MPs sceptical of the idea of more devolution have raised criticisms about the way the issue has been handled. On Friday, union leader Dave Watson said critics were “spitting their dummies out”.
However, Ian Davidson MP responded yesterday: “That’s certainly not the phrase I would use. There has been a great deal of anxiety about the way this has been handled. The first I heard about it was when I read it in the papers.”
Elsewhere in the speech, Lamont sought to portray herself as an “honest” figure who would not shy away from spelling out tough measures required at a time of scant resources. She said: “I make this pledge to the people of Scotland. I will be straight with you about what we can and cannot do. We won’t say one thing in public and then tell the public something we know to be untrue”.
But SNP MSP Joan McAlpine said Labour was ‘obsessed’ with the Nationalists. “It is bizarre that the Labour leadership talk about the SNP as much at their conferences as we do at ours – it’s time they got their own house in order.” To transform society, Holyrood needed full powers, she added.