29-04-2007 PROS & CONS 16

WORK AS if you live in the early days of a better nation." So wrote the Glaswegian author and artist Alasdair Gray. It is a noble, inspiring, heart-lifting sentiment that we would do well to remember in the final few days before Thursday's election, a reminder to all Scots that we each have our part to play in improving the country in which we live and the lot of our fellow citizens.

Whom we vote for four days from now matters hugely. It is a statement of the direction in which we want Scotland to go, an expression of our ambition and aspirations. This week we face our most difficult choice since we decided overwhelmingly to vote for devolution. Indeed, Thursday's election could have even more far-reaching consequences, since it could lead to a referendum on the future of the union and indep-endence. This, then, is a moment of historic, defining significance.

Scotland today is different in many ways from the country that voted for devolution in 1999. For one thing, it's more confident. Recently released figures show a Scottish GDP growth of 2.6% compared to UK figures of 2.7%. We have started to tackle health problems and the scourge of poverty. Much credit for this must go to the Labour-led Executive. It was, moreover, Labour who delivered the devolution settlement.

Since becoming first minister, Jack McConnell has steadied a ship rocked by the death of Donald Dewar and the resignation of Henry McLeish. More than that, he has introduced initiatives that will bequeath significant benefits to future generations, most notably the smoking ban.

This newspaper has been a staunch supporter of devolution, often in the face of corrosive criticism of Holyrood from other Scottish newspapers and from the Scottish editions of English newspapers. We maintained our support even in those dark days when the spiralling costs of the Holyrood building overshadowed anything that was achieved inside its walls. Yet we have not shirked from criticising aspects of the parliament when we believed that they ran contrary to the best interests of the country, most notably in respect of MSPs' allowances.

Scotland is a better country for devolution and for the contribution of Jack McConnell himself. But is it better enough? Scotland has lagged behind the rest of Britain . Growth has historically been lower than the rest of the UK average, despite the most recent figures.

The Adam Smith Institute estimates that gross value added for Scotland grew by an annual average of 4.7% from 1992 to 2004, compared with a UK figure of 5.4%. Incomes in Scotland are lower, the health of our population is worse. Our education standards have not been improving fast enough. McConnell himself, in an interview published in Seven Days today, describes Motherwell town centre - in his own constituency - as a "pigsty", and there are many other small towns throughout Scotland that are similarly blighted. These are towns that have been run by Labour for decades.

If Labour has so failed to improve significantly many of the problems facing our country, does its election campaign suggest it has the policies to do so now?

This newspaper has never, and will not today, patronise its readers by directing them how to cast their votes. Nevertheless, we believe that our readers should know where we stand. It is our belief that the Scottish Labour party has not earned the right to a third term. We could have reached that conclusion solely on the basis of its support for a war in Iraq , a conflict this newspaper has consistently opposed for reasons that need not be repeated here.

But it is not just that cataclysmic error that has eroded our belief in the Labour Party. Its election campaign has been unremittingly negative. While we are not yet wholly convinced of the merits of independence, we are certain that Scots have the innate ability to run their own affairs if they choose to do so. That is the nature of democracy. The dire warnings from the Labour "big guns", parachuted in from Westminster , were patronising when they were not downright insulting. It is never a good idea to bully people, and some of the warnings issued by the Labour hierarchy have been not only foolish but risible - such as the suggestion that a referendum would lead somehow to the splitting up of families.

There is another worrying aspect to this blanket negativity. Labour's insistence on concentrating on the independence question prevented it from engaging properly with the SNP's policies for the governance of a devolved Scotland . When it has challenged the SNP's figures, it has revealed that its own economic policies - most notably the "tweaks" to the council tax banding - have not been fully costed or thought through. It is not enough to suggest, as McConnell did last week, that the council tax system should be changed but to present no serious, considered plans for an alternative.

There is no doubt that this election has produced a feeling of sea-change, either because of the strength of the anti-Blair sentiment, or because Alex Salmond has made the weakened Labour Party look as though they had inadequate answers to his challenges. While opinion polls suggest there is no increase, and possibly a decrease, in support for an independent Scotland , there is evidence to suggest that we want our parliament to have greater authority and extended powers, to appear less parochial and to grow in stature and importance.

This belief has grown in strength because we have been satisfied with the first stage in the devolution process and now have the confidence to progress further. It is also because we believe the parliament has failed to live up to expectations because the limits on its powers have prevented it from doing so.

A Nationalist-controlled Holyrood would, at least in the short term, have to work to meet the demand for more powers while simultaneously striving to win support for independence in the proposed 2010 referendum.

Would that, as Labour claims, be a recipe for continual confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster ? We do not believe so, although more stringent questioning and a wider debate on key issues is surely desirable. It would certainly have been welcome in the days before the invasion of Iraq , and we would welcome it now on the replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system. The SNP may be a party whose raison d'être is independence, but much of its campaign has focussed on convincing the electorate that it is fit to govern - even if the ultimate answer to the independence referendum is rejection - and that it is more than a pressure group with one agenda.

Salmond and his party have run an impressive and occasionally inspired campaign that has given them a clear lead in every recent opinion poll. It is worth considering that that lead has been achieved in the face of opposition from the vast majority of Scotland 's newspapers. When even arch-enemies the Daily Record and The Sun find themselves singing from the same songsheet, it's time to question the political diversity of our media.

To reiterate this newspaper is not convinced that independence is the best option for Scotland at this time. We acknowledge, however, that a vote for the SNP on Thursday is not a vote for independence, but a vote for a vote on independence. That referendum may also include an option for more powers for Holyrood, an option we would certainly support. Scotland may vote for independence, or it may vote against it. That is a question for 2010.

The question for Thursday is: who has the best policies for running the country under the present devolution arrangement, and who offers the best prospect of a real change for the better? Who, in short, is most fit to govern and focus the energies of 21st-century Scots?

The Sunday Herald has never been and will never be aligned to any political party. It is our job to monitor the activities of those in power, to challenge constantly their actions and to criticise whenever we believe it is justified to do so.

However, refusing to align ourselves to a particular party does not preclude us from offering our opinion on the best outcome. In this election, we believe that would be a coalition led by Alex Salmond. Like you, we can weigh up promises and add up economic policies, but in the end a vote for change is a leap of faith. It's a leap this newspaper is prepared to make. Here's to working as if we live in the early days of a better nation.

Source the Herald

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