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Clearly confused

Brian Taylor | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Politicians love to make things "absolutely clear". Their position, however opaque, is always "absolutely clear".

They are never confused. Is that absolutely clear?

Scottish Labour's position on an independence referendum scarcely fits that aim. Originally, it was what Sir Humphrey would call "courageous". Now it is decidedly gelatinous.

Labour MSPs met again at Holyrood to survey the collateral damage. I spoke privately to a fair number of them. They do not sound "absolutely clear" on where they are heading.

Labour group convener Duncan McNeil reiterated support for the principle of a referendum. He added the rider, however, that Labour would not abandon its right to scrutinise the detail of the bill.

As we pursued him down the glass corridor at Holyrood, I asked him whether that included the wording of the referendum. It does indeed.

Now, to be fair, Wendy Alexander has repeatedly said that there could be no blank cheque for the SNP over their bill. But the mood has changed.

Ringing cheers

A week ago, after the Holyrood group, the bold talk was that they wouldn't thwart the right of the Scottish people to determine their future.

Today, the talk is of the caveats, the wording, the timetable, the whys and wherefores. It's a question of tone.

So where are we? Some Labour MSPs were apprehensive about the initiative from the start. But most seemed willing to give it a run - when it felt like a tactic designed to flush out the SNP.

In other words, they liked the gutsy feel of "bring it on". They liked the notion of confronting Alex Salmond.

They liked the wheeze of demanding an early referendum - fully anticipating the first minister would decline. They thought that would "call his bluff".

As that strategy evaporated in the chaos and counter-briefing of the past few days, the mood apparently changed somewhat.

As one Labour MSP told me: "I didn't come into politics to do the SNP's bidding."

To be "absolutely clear", though, Labour MSPs are not saying they will vote down the SNP referendum Bill in 2010.

They are still saying, however, that that timetable is too tight with Holyrood elections due in 2011. They are saying that, ideally, the issue should have been settled by the 2010 UK general election.

On Wednesday in Holyrood, the first minister will set out the aims and objectives of his Scottish Government for the next 12 months. He will stress a referendum on independence will NOT form part of that programme but will follow in 2010.

Don't expect the cheers to ring out from the Labour benches at that point.

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