Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 15:46 UK

Wendy brings it on and it kicks off

John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Alex Salmond and Wendy Alexander
Mr Salmond and Ms Alexander clashed at first minister's questions

"Bring it on."

With those three little words Wendy Alexander has changed the political landscape at Holyrood.

She has not just put in some spring bulbs or cut the grass, she has ruptured the tectonic plates underneath.

Until that interview last Sunday afternoon with my BBC colleague Glenn Campbell, the debate here had been about which party could best govern Scotland. Now it's about Scotland itself.

Because, whether Gordon Brown likes it or not, there is going to be a referendum on independence, either in 2010 or 2011.

Unless, there is another dramatic u-turn by the Labour Party.

National conversation

At first minister's question time, Alex Salmond said he was very much looking forward to Wendy Alexander's big question.

"Bring it on", he teased.

Wendy Alexander began: "Will he bring forward a referendum bill in next year's legislative programme, to be announced next week?"

She had been waiting five days to put that question directly to Mr Salmond.

And the answer came, almost as directly: "We'll stick to what was laid out in the SNP manifesto."

So the "national conversation" on independence goes on until 2010 or 2011.

And then Alex Salmond will expect every Labour MSP to vote for a referendum.

Kenny MacAskill held a summit on firearms

"Given the progress that Wendy Alexander has made in the last few days who knows which side she'll be campaigning on!", he teased again.

"I am not the problem," Ms Alexander declared, to a great deal of laughter, and some nervous looks on her own backbenches.

"The problem is the first minister when it comes to resolving this issue in the nation's interest."

Labour's sudden conversion to holding a referendum has been the subject of much deep analysis.

If it was a Damascus road experience for Wendy Alexander, it must have happened between the time she left that BBC studio and the following morning.

Some say it may have happened during the programme itself.

'Manifesto commitment'

At any rate, it surprised her colleagues in the Labour Party and struck Gordon Brown dumb for three days.

His failure to support her, even by prime minister's question time on Wednesday, led other party leaders to suggest she'd been "hung out to dry".

But MSPs here at Holyrood rallied bravely to her support.

"The judgement of history," Ms Alexander told Alex Salmond, "will be between those who wanted to let the people speak and those who wanted to delay the referendum in order to ferment grievance and fray the relationship with the rest of the UK and because they feared the result."

Mr Salmond said he preferred to stick to his manifesto commitment, take time to consult and not take advantage of Labour's current unpopularity.

Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said Labour was endangering the United Kingdom for its own ends.

"The Labour Party has abandoned the millions of people who want devolution to work, but the Conservatives will not," she said.

No-one quite knows however what will happen now to the Calman Commission on further powers for the Scottish Parliament within the UK.

And this was supposed to be a quiet week in the Scottish Parliament

Nicol Stephen, for the Liberal Democrats, said Alex Salmond could not believe his luck.

"First he had the Tories cosying up to him on the budget, now we have the farcical floor show of the Labour Party offering him his lifetime's ambition on a silver tray."

And this was supposed to be a quiet week in the Scottish Parliament.

There was a humdrum housing debate, called by Labour, which, incidentally, led to a rare SNP defeat.

There was an even more humdrum debate on public services.

We had a visit from a Mr Wing, the president of the upper house of the Tasmanian parliament.

The only significant statement was on free personal care.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced that Lord Sutherland's call for an extra £40m to fill the funding gap would indeed be provided.

And she took the opportunity of reminding Westminster that it is "unfairly" withholding £30m in attendance allowance.

Gun laws

There was another brush with Westminster on Tuesday when Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill held his "firearms summit".

He called all interested groups to Bute House to discuss what do to about the increasing number of casualties from firearms incidents, up a quarter last year to 247.

A third of them involved children and 58% involved airguns.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was invited to come, since the Westminster parliament is responsible for gun laws, but she refused to attend.

Mr MacAskill is however to write to her with the summit's conclusions... that the law on airguns needs tightening.

The summit, however, could not agree on a general a ban.

It accepted that a licensing system is probably impractical at the moment, given that there are as many as 500,000 airguns in circulation in Scotland.

On Wednesday afternoon, MSPs got the chance to debate Scotland's "international strategy".

Mention was made of Europe and Malawi.

Goldfish - cumbernauld
Hundreds will lose their jobs at the Goldfish credit card call centre

But it wasn't until Nicol Stephen asked a question at first minister's question time that the dreadful plight of the people of Burma was raised on the floor of the chamber.

What was Scotland doing to help?, he asked.

"We stand ready to help", said the first minister.

"The cyclone in Burma is a humanitarian disaster on a global scale and Scotland will always come to the aid of people in distress."

He added he was ready to listen to any practical suggestions anyone might have and ministers would be meeting the aid charities' disasters emergency committee as soon as possible.

It was also clear that not a great deal could be done for the 900 people in Cumbernauld who are in danger of losing their jobs in Barclaycard's "Goldfish" credit card call centre.

But the local MSP Cathy Craigie did extract a promise from the first minister that a buyer will be sought for the site in Cumbernauld as a going concern and that all would be done to find employees similar jobs with Barclaycard's expanding operation in Glasgow.

Perhaps everyone's eye has been off the ball this week in Holyrood.

A referendum has a powerful momentum of its own, whether you bring it on or bring it off.


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