Eddie Barnes: Alexander’s move could put Lib Dems on the spot

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FOR the second time in a few weeks, Douglas Alexander has dipped his toe into Scottish politics. And, once again, he has made something of a splash.

In October, the shadow foreign secretary called on his moribund Scottish party to put a lid on the past and stake out a positive message for the future. Today, he wades into the constitution, nudging his party clearly towards support for a weightier Scottish Parliament.

Contesting the referendum on independence, he declares, does not and need not require simply a defence of the status quo – by which he means the current system plus the new powers in the Scotland Bill. Instead, he says an “improved” settlement should be examined.

Mr Alexander’s intervention is significant in two key respects. Firstly, and most obviously, the idea of a stronger Scottish Parliament now appears to have the backing of the Scottish party’s most important thinker. Secondly, Mr Alexander’s call for Labour to argue this case ahead of the independence referendum could change the dynamics of that campaign, which will witness a power struggle between the SNP and Scottish Labour. Both parties will want to demonstrate they are the ones most closely aligned with the popular mood. Now, with Mr Alexander’s intervention, both are muscling in on the most popular constitutional territory – the so-called “devo-max” option.

Mr Salmond says he wants that option on the ballot, in the form of a secondary question. That would keep him in touch with a broad span of Scottish opinion. Mr Alexander says today he believes the referendum should be a single question on independence. That would pin the SNP on independence, and allow Scottish Labour to back pretty much everything short of it.

If Labour is now moving beyond the Scotland Bill, it would leave the UK government on its own in insisting the Scotland Bill is where the action is. For the Conservative part of the coalition, this may not be too uncomfortable. But for the Lib Dems, whose members support a federal UK, the question of why they remain wedded to proposals fewer and fewer seemingly want will only keep mounting.