Just out from the Scottish report to Labour conference with Iain Gray, Jim Murphy and Willie Bain, the Glasgow North East Labour candidate making speeches. My quick report card - Bain seems like a likely candidate, emphasising his local roots, Iain Gray actually gave a good speech and Jim Murphy gave a poor one.
Gray, Labour’s Holyrood leader, hasn’t been getting good reviews lately but he found some passion and meter in his attacks on the SNP.
“Alex Salmond is not taking my country forward, he is dragging it back, that's what happens when Labour loses power...Alex Salmond is not lifting my country up he is dragging it down, that's what happens when Labour loses power.” It was not bad but he managed to tie himself up in knots over the question of a referendum.
“The day may well come when the people of Scotland want a referendum to settle their constitutional future once and for all. But not now, in the midst of a recession. And not on a question rigged and fixed by the SNP,” he said.
Why he bothered with a reference to the referendum I don’t know because the ambiguity of it raised eyebrows us on the press benches and led to this exchange with reporters afterwards:
You left an intriguing question hanging there on the timing of a referendum?
Gray: “You cannot say in politics this question should never be asked. Wendy said have a referendum now, and I supported her, on a straight question and Salmond ran way from that. They are interested in is a rigged referendum, a timetable to suit them, and they are pursuing that in the middle of a recession when they should be focusing on getting Scotland through the recession.”
So, on which day do you want a referendum?
Gray: “I’m saying to you there may well be a time, certainly not in the middle of a recession. What they have just now is a referendum bill opposed by all three opposition parties so the prospect of getting that through is remote in the extreme.”
Would you call a referendum if you were returned as First Minister?
Gray: “That would depend on the circumstances at the time. If we had been able to get this question out of the way that would have been a good thing. The business people I speak to think this is a distraction.”
Your position then is bring it on, but not until after the recession?
“My position is this - if there is ever major constitutional change that has to be endorsed in a referendum. But we’re in the middle of a recession, all the evidence shows that support for independence is low and falling, and so this is the time of the Scottish government and politicians of all stripes to be focusing on what we can do to get through the recession and to take advantage of the upturn when it comes. That's the most important question in Scottish politics today.”
I suspect that within the hour the SNP will beg to differ.