They were once the closest of allies, but after a traumatic week Wendy Alexander and Gordon Brown's relationship could be fractured forever – along with the future of Britain, writes Eddie Barnes
THEY speak on the phone regularly, but the call on Tuesday evening last week was unusually tense. Earlier that day, Wendy Alexander had staged a press conference in a cramped committee room at the Scottish Parliament, expressing a view that few thought they would ever hear from a Labour leader: it's time for a referendum on Scottish independence. Now Gordon Brown, her long-time mentor, protector and friend, was on the line. Later that evening, appearing on Newsnight Scotland, Alexander gave her account of how the call had gone. Had Brown explicitly endorsed her decision to call a referendum? "Yes," replied Alexander. Really? "She did speak to him, but he did not say you have my approval," a senior Labour source told Scotland on Sunday. "He said you do not have my support. There was no deal. People have been lied to." Thirteen years ago, the disputed details of another deal, when Tony Blair and Brown met to decide the party leadership in a smart London restaurant inflicted a festering wound that went on to cripple New Labour. Now, as the party reaches its apparent nadir, so emerges another.
Two things made last week's Labour pains even more remarkable: first that it should concern the previously joined-at-the-hip Brown and Alexander. And second that it should fall over a matter that could scarcely be of greater importance: the potential break-up of Britain. As the dust temporarily settles on one of the most surreal weeks in Holyrood's nine-year history, a new landscape emerges filled with gaping, and previously unimaginable, splits. There is the rift between Alexander and Brown. There is an open feud between Scottish Labour MSPs and the rest of their stunned, gob-smacked party. And then there is the biggest potential split of all, which Alexander's remarkable actions have triggered – between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The extraordinary events of the past week have their genesis in the first frosty months of 2007 when the question first arose: should Labour back a referendum on independence? Then first minister Jack McConnell was looking ahead to the election campaign. "The whole question was discussed at some length because the referendum was becoming a big part of the campaign," said a close ally. "We knew it was a weakness that we didn't have a good answer to." McConnell was tempted to spike the Nationalist guns but backed out. Agreeing to a referendum meant ceding too much territory to the SNP, he decided. Furthermore, he believed it would create uncertainty in the business community. The idea was ditched.
After Labour's defeat in May 2007, the idea resurfaced with a vengeance. Senior Labour figures in London and Edinburgh saw a snap referendum as a way of quickly drawing the SNP's fire (one source claims Labour was about to back the plan last June, only deciding against it when Tory vice-chairman Richard Cook declared in this paper that he supported it; Labour didn't want to be seen to supporting a Tory plan). But with no clear leadership in Scotland – McConnell was still hanging on – and with Brown having taken over at Westminster, the party had little settled direction, and so the moment passed.
When Alexander took over in September, she began privately pressing to enact the plan, urging Brown at every opportunity to support it. The strategy was for Brown to bring forward an emergency bill at Westminster. That way, Labour could control the timing and wording, without having to bother about the SNP. As with the devolution referendum of 1997, Labour could easily have put forward the bill within weeks. "She was hassling Gordon about it all the time," said a senior source. Brown did not rule it out, but nor did he support it either. The idea went steadily cold.
It was last weekend that Alexander decided she'd had enough. A series of one-to-one meetings with her MSPs over recent weeks appears to have emboldened her that she had widespread support for the scheme. And with the wreckage of Labour's local government elections still smouldering, Alexander decided to act. Scotland on Sunday understands that she spoke to Downing Street declaring her plans to press ahead and was told categorically that they did not support her. Yet, after a Sunday newspaper suggested that Brown and Alexander were "on the verge" of announcing the plan, she went ahead anyway, declaring on the BBC's Politics Show that Salmond should "bring it on".
Allies of Alexander's are blunt. "Gordon can't make a decision and people have just got so fed up with it. This was just another decision he wasn't willing to make. She basically decided, well f*** you, I've got to do something," said one. The decision was tactical, says another. "This wasn't so much about having a referendum as showing up Alex Salmond for bottling out of it." The rest of the party was caught on the hop, including Alexander's advisers.
Her senior adviser, Mike Ellrick, is understood to have only heard about the change of policy on Sunday evening while jogging. Shadow cabinet ministers were told over the phone over the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Alexander's phone was soon ringing off the hook. At the Scotland Office in London – which looks over constitutional matters affecting Scotland – ministers Des Browne and David Cairns were speechless. If the new party line was that it backed an immediate referendum, the obvious question would be why didn't they introduce one immediately at Westminster? Ministers knew they had no answer.
At Holyrood, confusion was total. "If it's Tuesday, we must be backing a referendum," quipped one MSP. Alexander's laid-back press officer Simon Pia found himself surrounded by journalists at every turn, demanding to know what was going.
Labour MSPs fell into line with Alexander, taking at face value the fact that she – as Brown's closest ally – had the PM's backing. To ram home the point at a group meeting on Tuesday, MSP Duncan McNeil told the group that if they rebelled, it would be a "victory for the media".
Soon MSPs were warming to the idea – after eight years of living in Westminster's shadow, finally they were calling the shots. So when Brown distanced himself from Alexander's remarks during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, it was seen as an act of betrayal. "He's stabbed her in the back. He bottled it," said a senior Labour MSP. "The MSPs have been lied to," shot back a Westminster Labour MP. "She basically thought that if she just announced this that Gordon would fall into line. He has been treated disgracefully."
Watching all this unfold was an incredulous Alex Salmond. The First Minister was at his Strichen home on Monday when news came through that his main opponent was now supporting his policy. SNP ministers struggled at first to believe it. "My first thought was: 'Oh good, that means we've got the votes,'" said one. "My second thought was 'what?'"
With Alexander's backing, a referendum is now set to take place, with SNP ministers revealing that the date will be some time in the autumn of 2010, a few months after David Cameron is tipped to have succeeded Brown as prime minister.
Salmond is aiming to capitalise on the anger of a Conservative UK victory in Scotland with a blunt message that if Scots want to kick the Tories out, they can vote for independence. Disconsolate Labour ministers in London admit there is nothing they can do about it. "There have been two tangible outcomes," says one. "One is that Alex Salmond now knows that he has a blank cheque from Labour – that whenever he wants to bring forward a referendum, we will vote for him. Secondly, he can say that everybody now agrees that it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide."
When Salmond attended a gala dinner in Glasgow on Friday, observers noted that they had never seen him in such sparkling form. No wonder.
By contrast, for Labour, the next steps lead only to further chaos. Alexander and her allies are hoping to keep up the pressure, pressing Brown to bring forward a quick referendum bill at Westminster. "They (UK Labour ministers) have the ability to bring forward a bill," said one Scottish source. "We are not going to be the whipping boys to protect Westminster again on this. They should get on with it."
Alexander's allies believe they would win the vote, enabling them to hit back against Salmond. But the move has been categorically ruled out by ministers. Ironically, Whitehall sources point out that it was Alexander's blunderbuss approach last week that has finally settled Brown's mind against a referendum. Until last week, there remained an outside chance he might be persuaded – but Alexander's inept tactics assured it was dumped.
Alexander now faces a grim struggle to cling on to her job. Those close to Brown say he will not demand her resignation. "It's not Gordon's style," said one. There are predictions that MSPs who were caught up in the whirlwind of events last week may soon come back to earth with a bump as they analyse things more soberly. If they turn, the end would be quick. "She might just walk. She might just decide she has had enough," said one source. But, in what amounts to the ultimate insult, it appears that attacks from Salmond will be guarded. "Alex didn't want to go too hard on her," said an SNP spokesman, reflecting on last week's First Minister's Questions. "It's better she stays where she is."
One Labour activist summed up the mood: "It's a good idea to put the pressure on the Nats and ask why they don't believe their own policy enough to have a referendum straight away. The problem was how she did it. She didn't tell the group what she was going to do. And she didn't think it through."
All of Alexander's vast self-belief will now be required if she is to escape last week's fiasco with her job.
It's time to put the brakes on runaway Wendy
WENDY Alexander's leadership of Scottish Labour has been like watching a car crash in slow motion. She has skidded from the crisis over dodgy donations to embarrassing performances in the Scottish Parliament, which confirmed Alex Salmond's superiority, and now to a potential national disaster over a referendum on independence.
All of this from a woman who was touted as bringing much-needed high intelligence and foresight to the job. Instead, she has been an unmitigated disaster. It cannot be long before the 'men in kilts' call on her to suggest it has all become too stressful for her. She should step aside.
In one catastrophic gesture, she has once again damaged Labour by embroiling it in an unnecessary mess; undermined Prime Minister Gordon Brown when it was the last thing he needed; handed huge advantage to the Scottish Nationalists; and exposed the loss of democracy within the Labour Party.
It is unthinkable that a policy U-turn on an issue as serious as the future of the United Kingdom should happen as a result of a knee-jerk spasm by one person on a TV programme. Yet that is what has happened. Not only did Alexander brazenly flout the authority of the Prime Minister – she did not consult her party colleagues at Holyrood or Westminster, nor the UK Ministers responsible for Scotland and the constitution. Nor did she consult the Scottish Labour party executive (now reduced to a committee of castrati) and certainly not her party members. Even MPs and others who were calling for a referendum after the SNP electoral success a year ago are appalled by her behaviour.
At the party's Scottish conference six weeks ago, there was no mention from Alexander of "bring it on". In fact, she said the Calman Commission on the constitution "is the right way to proceed", and there was no debate on the possibility nor the implications of a 'Wendyrendum'. It is understandable that members who give of their time and money are asking what is the point of belonging to a party where such arrogant behaviour is acceptable
Meanwhile, constituency officials, struggling to raise funds to contest the next UK election, are demanding to know where the money would come from to fight a referendum campaign.
I have to declare an interest: I was one of those who went to war with Ms Alexander the last time she bounced Labour into an unnecessary mess over Section 28. Although a minister in the Donald Dewar administration, she ignored Cabinet collegiality and announced the repeal of Section 28 off her own bat at a speech at Glasgow University.
My opposition was on the basis that it was simply bad politics, and I was proved right when Labour lost the Ayr by-election, which became a referendum on Section 28. Then she lost Labour one seat. Now she is blithely putting the future of the UK at risk.
The Wendy-ites who insist that she has the right to do what she wants because she is the leader of Scottish Labour are wrong. Labour is still a UK party led (albeit shakily) by Gordon Brown, and, unless there has been a Scottish breakaway, she is merely the leader of her group at Holyrood.
Yet she has high-handedly ignored the interests of the Westminster Government and MPs on a reserved matter. The icy silence from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Des Browne, and his usually outspoken minister David Cairns has been deafening.
Worst of all is what amounts to a betrayal of her friend and protector, Gordon Brown. She knew (because it had been discussed with him and her brother) that the Prime Minister felt this was not the time to become embroiled in a referendum debate. At a time when his authority is questioned, she has made him appear powerless on his own home ground.
Alexander has handed Alex Salmond a season ticket to mock Labour's shambles. She has even achieved what was thought to be the impossible, by breathing life into the near-extinct Scottish Tories, who can now garner votes as the only true Unionist party. It is time someone in Labour put the brakes on runaway Wendy.
If Labour thinks it knows how the public will vote then it is in the minority
ASK most politicians whether they think Scotland should become independent and you will – perhaps unusually – get a clear answer. Moreover, if you ask them the same question a month or so later you will receive – perhaps even more unusually – much the same answer.
On independence, at least, politicians typically have firm and fixed views, even if Wendy Alexander last week changed her views on an independence referendum.
However, ask the average Scot what they think about independence and their answer depends on how you pose the question. Simply ask them whether they favour independence and you may well receive a positive response. But ask them whether they want to separate from the Union and they will say no. Equally, invite them to choose between independence and devolution, and devolution usually wins out.
In recent weeks, two polls asking Scots about independence found around two-fifths in favour and two-fifths against, with the rest not sure. In contrast, two other polls that asked whether Scotland should separate from the UK reported only between a quarter and a third in favour, while a half or more wanted to remain in the Union. Meanwhile, a fifth poll claimed that even fewer than a quarter wanted independence rather than devolution.
In the months leading up to last year's Holyrood election, polls that simply asked people whether they supported independence typically found large majorities in favour. By the time the election campaign was over, a clear majority were against. Currently, opinion seems to be in between. In short, anyone who feels they know for sure how Scots will vote on independence is a fool. Nevertheless there are clues to be discerned from the polls.
The Scottish Social Attitudes survey has persistently found that around two in three believe that most of the important decisions about Scotland should be made in Edinburgh, rather than in London.
Not only is there widespread support for the Scottish Parliament having tax powers, but also nearly two-thirds would give it responsibility for deciding the level of welfare benefits – currently a step too far for most unionist politicians. Yet there is still a line most Scots do not want to cross – to be part of a country with its own armed forces and its own foreign policy. These are the quintessential attributes of real independence. Yet, according to the social attitudes survey, only one in three wants Holyrood to have such responsibilities.
So whether Scots want independence or not depends on what is meant by 'independence'. They do not want London running their domestic affairs, but they would prefer to stay within the UK. Their answers to opinion polls reflect these contradictory pressures – in favour of 'autonomy' and 'freedom', but not 'separation' or 'break-up'. The outcome of any 'yes-no' referendum on independence will depend on which of these pressures proves to be uppermost in voters' minds.
Interestingly, on the two previous occasions when independence became the subject of intense campaigning – during the 1999 and 2007 election campaigns – support for the idea fell away. This could be taken to mean that once any referendum campaign gets under way concern about 'separation' will win out. But it could also indicate that opinion is sufficiently volatile it could swing either way. Advocates of the Union should certainly want to hold any referendum in the most advantageous circumstances possible.
Yet this is not what Labour now proposes. Given the contradictory pressures in many Scots minds, it is unsurprising that the one consistent message to emerge from recent polls is that the most popular option of all is to beef up Holyrood's powers within the Union. With that on the ballot, Alex Salmond's task would be much harder. But Labour proposes a simple 'yes-no' vote on independence.
Equally, Scots might be thought most likely to put 'freedom' above 'separation' when the chief advocate of independence is a popular First Minister and its principal opponent an unpopular Prime Minister. Yet in calling for an early referendum that is precisely the backdrop against which Labour now says it wants to fight a referendum campaign. Alexander might relish the prospect of a clear ideological battle with Salmond. But she should remember that citizens are not like politicians.
• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University