A couple of days ago I noted that Wendy Alexander had, in the face of disastrous local election for the English and Welsh parts of Labour and having seen polls showing SNP popularity continuing to surge, decided that she wanted a referendum on Scottish independence right now. I thought that this would get interesting very quickly, and it sure has!
Wendy had told the media of her new plan and had confirmed that Gordon Brown supported her. Only the next day Gordon Brown told the Commons that Wendy had not ion fact called for a referendum and that we all misheard. Back comes Wendy at First Minister's Questions, again making it clear that she wanted the referendum but also claiming that Gordon Brown was not wrong.
It's quite clear what's happened here. Wendy has, for some time, thought that the best option was to get a referendum ASAP. She is confident that the British Nationalists would win a referendum in 2008/09, especially if she gets to set the question asked. She is scared that if Scotland waits until 2010, when there may well be a Tory government in London and the SNP polls would have continued to rise then the Union may be in trouble. She is also concerned about Alex Salmond getting to choose the question asked.
Numerous polls on independence have had numerous different result - ranging from 19% support to 41% support (with 40% against). The varying factor is the question. If the question contains a reference to £leaving the Union" or "breaking up the Union" then support for independence falls. If the question is the one Alex wants "something along the lines of "would you support the Scottish government entering independence negotiations with the UK government " the yes vote soars. Wendy's thinking therefore is that a quick snap referendum will get the results the Brit Nats want.
Gordon Brown is not so keen. Apparently Wendy has been bugging him about this for some time, and he has always ruled against a referendum. This makes sense, he is after all Mr Prudence and he does not want to be the man who "lost" the Union. He sees the referendum as a risk they should avoid at all costs. As far as Gordon was concerned, his word was final.
But then things changed, Brown got humiliated on May 1st, and Wendy sensed an opportunity to bounce him. She made the unilateral policy switch, told the world that Gordon supported her, then sat back and waited for Gordon to confirm this. She, wrongly, thought that he would have to do so to save face. Unfortunately for Wendy, Gordon didn't play ball. Now we're left with the two leaders saying the total opposite but laughably insisting that they are in agreement!
To make matters worse for Wendy, she's now been told that it is impossible for her to force an early referendum. The SNP are in government and Holyrood rules state that if the government are planning a bill on an issue, no other MSP can do a separate bill. Since the SNP are planning a referendum bill for 2010, Wendy has no power to bring in an earlier bill. In other words her risky bluff was all for nothing.
Where does that leave Scotland, and where does it leave Wendy? Hard to tell. The SNP will not budge - they had 2010 as the referendum date in their manifesto and can point out that they have a mandate to wait until then. The problem now for Wendy is that when the SNP bill comes before Holyrood it will be on the SNP's terms and using the SNP's wording. She can't vote against it as that would be another u turn (making a full circle). Has she just sold herself, her party and the Union down the river?