How Bulldog Brown could call Braveheart Salmond's bluff

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PRAY silence for the Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: "Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead." Thank you, George. That needed saying - by someone stupid enough to believe it.

George Robertson was the figurehead of the Scottish Labour oligarchy, as shadow Secretary of State, in 1995, when he gave utterance to that prophetic gem. He departed soon after to the less exacting post of Secretary General of Nato - fortunately in the post-Cold War era. At the time when his voices prompted him to proclaim the salutary properties of devolution, the SNP had just three MPs, elected under the equally prophetic slogan "Free by '93". Today there are 47 nationalist MSPs at Holyrood, where the SNP is the largest party.

That would seem to signal a massive rate of conversion to the separatist cause in the intervening 12 years. Er, up to a point, Lord Copper. In fact, the number of votes cast for the SNP last Thursday was just 34,663 more than at the general election of 1992; yet the reward, in terms of parliamentary representation, was immeasurably greater. That is how devolution works: it kills nationalism with kindness.

It is no discourtesy to Alex Salmond to point out that, in his long march from half a taxi-load of tribunes of the people to his current strength at Holyrood, he had an awful lot of help from some bears of very little brain. The first was Edward Heath, whose monumental contribution to the dissolution of Britain in the lethal embrace of the European Union should not obscure the fact that he was also the first begetter of the devolution project, with his fatuous Declaration of Perth in 1968. That craven capitulation to the terrifying phenomenon of a single by-election win by the SNP at Hamilton set the mood of appeasement that sapped Unionism over the next 40 years.

If Labour came later to the feast than the Tories, The Party We Love compensated for its tardiness by the intensity of its contribution. One might have thought the Gladstonian ordeal it suffered on the rack of Home Rule in the late 1970s, culminating in its exclusion from power for 18 years, would have taught it to spurn devolution like the plague; but this burnt child never learned to fear the fire. The notion of ring-fencing this country from the free-market realities of Thatcherism galvanised "civic Scotland" (code words for public-sector dinosaurs) into a crusade for a Scottish Parliament.

John Smith and Donald Dewar were keen fans. As former debating partners in Glasgow University Union, they found the project of a mega-student union to house progressive windbags in Edinburgh irresistibly appealing. Smith called it "the settled will of the Scottish people", which is precisely what it was not. At no time in its history - even at its peak in 1997 when just 1.7 million out of 4 million eligible voters said Yes - has devolution ever commanded the support of a majority of the Scottish electorate.

The supreme credit, however, for crafting the devolution settlement that has just ended Scottish Labour's half-century of hegemony must go to Donald Dewar. It was he who browbeat a hesitant Tony Blair into adopting it. It was he who compounded this by drafting a Scotland Act - ably assisted by Wendy Alexander, now pretender to the tottering Labour throne - which provided the SNP with a forum and a gerrymandered electoral system that paved its way to power. At the first Scottish election in 1999, the SNP found itself promoted from six Westminster MPs to 35 Holyrood MSPs. Game on. Altruism is not a characteristic normally associated with Scottish Labour; but if ever a political party groomed its opponent for victory, this was it.

This column dubbed Dewar 'Donald Kerensky'; who, today, could plausibly deny him that title? As for Kerensky's bumbling heir, Jack McConnell, time is up: consider the Winter Palace in Charlotte Square stormed. The gravest threat to the Union now is not Salmond, but McConnell. While it is amusing to hear the SNP insist that the largest party must form the government, since that is a Westminster convention, it is imperative that Salmond be allowed to do so. After the stupefying irregularities of this election, there will be a particular public sensitivity to any suggestion of breach of the rules, even if those rules are more imagined than real.

If McConnell behaves like a defeated Lanarkshire provost clinging to the furniture as he is dragged from his office, that will be grist to the separatist mill. His buffoonery has cost the Union enough already: it is time he revisited Malawi. Let the nationalists shoulder the burden of government; let their inexperience take its toll; above all, let them expose themselves to that most implacable of political hazards - "events, dear boy".

Sometimes events can be precipitated, if politicians possess imagination and courage. This critically narrow nationalist victory can be turned into a unionist opportunity. Why is Salmond talking about an independence referendum in 2010? Because he knows he could not win one now. Last Thursday's figures spell that out: 664,227 separatist votes from an electorate of four million.

In 2010, however, more ardently than any Surbiton housewife, Salmond longs for a Conservative victory in a UK general election. He would then turn a referendum on the Union into a plebiscite on metropolitan English Toryism: never again Scotland under Thatcherism - cut loose now - it's time! So the unionist parties should short-circuit that ploy by calling his bluff now. Let Gordon Brown, on the responsible grounds of settling a divisive issue for a generation (as Salmond concedes it would do), hold a referendum on Scottish independence as soon as he enters No 10.

No distracting third questions: UK or bust. Could nationalist politicians, at Holyrood or Westminster, oppose the generous concession of the constitutional plebiscite they have always affected to desire? How would their core vote react if they did? It would sunder the SNP beyond repair. Has Gordon, who always feared to challenge Blair, the stomach for such an initiative? Come on, Gordon... Alex... if you think you're men enough. Bring it on.