Opinion: Trouble is brewing in Scotland for Brown

Gordon Brown may have thought his recent trip to the war zone of Iraq an important part of building his prime-ministerial image, but real problems await in a country much closer to home.

The natives of Scotland are becoming restless. A recent opinion poll north of the border showed that for the first time in living memory a majority of Scots wanted ‘independence'.

But like many events taking place in the north of Britain, this went almost unreported. This lack of interest in anything Scottish - unless it involves a sex scandal - is a noticeable media trend and the direct result of devolution.

Yet as winter turns to spring, there could suddenly be more interest. In the May elections, the Westminster lobby might just wake up to the fact that an independent Scotland would not only ­scupper Brown's ambitions, but could ­ensure that Labour becomes a permanent party of opposition in Scotland.

Independence can only come about if the SNP wins the elections in May, which would trigger an independence referendum. And the indications are not good for Labour: SNP leader Alex Salmond is way ahead of First Minister Jack McConnell in the popularity stakes.

In the last Scottish election, Brown brought some of his own staff to run the campaign, including his press officer Ian Austin and focus group ­guru Ed Milliband. But they are now both English MPs, which means the next Scottish PR ­campaign is likely to be run by master election strategist Douglas Alexander.

The transport secretary ran the most effectively focused campaign I have ever witnessed during the first Holyrood elections. He went with a negative campaign against ‘divorce' from the UK and what this would cost Scotland. The more friendly sounding ‘independence' was never actually mentioned by Labour.

Like Brown, Alexander is the son of a Church of Scotland minister and is often seen as dour. But dour he wasn't at a recent press ball I attended in Glasgow, as he wowed the Scottish media with his jokes. Later that evening at a charity event, I was dismayed to hear the Chancellor tell the exact same jokes. ‘They are mine,' he barked at me when I challenged their authorship.

Both men are trying to polish up their images as they realise that the stakes are getting higher. They both realise that this time around it is not only the future of Scotland that is at stake, but Brown's political future, too.
charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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