Apart from the distinctively thrawn nature of our fellow citizens, how are we to explain the extraordinary switch in support to the SNP from Labour in our opinion poll on voting intentions for a Scottish parliament? The figures are of considerable interest because they are the first to illustrate an effect which seems to show unchanged levels of support for both parties at the level of the British parliament but a significant shift to the SNP from Labour when the question of voting for a Scottish parliament is raised. It is true that frequently there has been a degree of perversity registered in voting intentions for the SNP. During the Perth and Kinross by-election in 1995 it was shown that 49% of those planning to vote SNP were in favour of a Scottish parliament with substantial powers while only 43% wanted a completely independent Scottish parliament. At the very least this suggested that

SNP voters were a good deal more keen on devolution than they were on independence. That said, the new figures on a Scottish parliament suggest that the Scottish electorate, or a significant section of it, intends to continue using the SNP banner as a repository for tactical voting. We are not only thrawn, but downright cunning as well.

This interpretation is obviously incomplete; neither should it be taken as either a down-playing of the effect of SNP values or arguments or a dismissal of their potential political effect. On the contrary, there is a strand of the Labour Party which has always been inclined to nationalism and some of the SNP support which we find registered this morning may represent a leakage from Labour. Given the recent cage-rattling response to Labour tactical voters an effect of this sort would seem guaranteed to bring about apoplexy in Keir Hardie House. In addition, the figures confirm the wisdom of the SNP leadership in involving the party fully in the drive for devolution.

It was wise to get involved, but the translation of all of this into a weakening of the Union sufficient to claim independence is neither provable nor likely. Nevertheless, opinion polls of this sort must present something of a nightmare and also a challenge to Mr Blair and in particular to Mr Dewar. The prime minister has always seemed a reluctant convert to devolution and Mr Dewar is responsible for arguing that the Union would not be threatened by a decent measure of home Rule. This is also the position we have taken and we stick by it, but at a time when the Labour Party is so dominant in national affairs the growth of support for the SNP in a specifically Scottish context must indicate either a slackening of admiration for Labour here or a desire to see the establishment of an effective opposition in Scotland to a party which has changed, and not always for the better. In this context

the projected examination of the Barnett formula, governing the Scottish share of UK public spending, should be conducted with great care. The arguments for changing it are hideously complicated but at the very least there must be full and open consultation with Scotland. Imposition of change from London is out of the question.