Let's celebrate again the changes to our electoral geography

Devolution has injected some vitality into politics. Big issues can be handled in different ways
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WE ARE living in groundbreaking times, it seems. Since the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in May, there have been a whirlwind of openings, official openings, opening ceremonies and opening speeches, all of them, apparently "historic moments".

I thought I had witnessed for myself the only "historic" day for the Welsh Assembly when the Queen performed her rituals in Cardiff followed by a mediocre pop concert in which Tom Jones sang and the Manic Street Preachers did not. But some of the Welsh politicians told me that they regarded the opening speeches in the Assembly which had taken place two weeks before as even more historic, and the moment when powers were formally devolved to Cardiff, an event which had still to take place, as more historic still. Scotland, too, has been notching up historic landmarks on a near daily basis.

Even so, behind the ceremonial glitter, the politics of devolution is already making waves. Scottish Question Time in the Commons this week had a light-hearted, "demob happy" atmosphere, except in this case none of the MPs was leaving. Most of the ministerial answers to questions included the words "in the future, this will be a matter for a Scottish Parliament". This, of course, is one of the bigger questions which has moved into the foreground since the May elections. What will the Scottish MPs do, what will the Scottish Secretary - still in the Cabinet - do? And the thorniest one of them all, why should they vote on legislation affecting England?

After Donald Dewar stepped down as Scottish Secretary, following one of the earlier "openings" of the parliament, there was quite a debate between senior ministers about whether his successor should be in the Cabinet. Some argued, rightly in my view, that Transport should be given Cabinet status instead. But Gordon Brown convinced Tony Blair that smooth co-ordination between Whitehall and Edinburgh, along with the symbolic importance of having a truly United Kingdom Cabinet, was more important. The new Scottish Secretary, John Reid, made a compelling case for his elevated status during Scottish Questions when he read out a seemingly never-ending list of his responsibilities. Yet you cannot help wondering whether his unofficial role is as Secretary of State for Ensuring the Scottish Parliament Does Not Get Too Big For Its Boots.

I doubt, though, whether most voters will lose too much sleep over whether Dr Reid's talents are being fully stretched. They might get much more worked up, or rather the English ones might, about a more tangible inequity. A Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer is presiding over arrangements for public spending which mean proportionately more money is spent on parts of Scotland than England. Even Lord Barnett, the author of these arrangements, which originated in the 1970s, has pronounced them to be outdated.

Certainly Jack Straw, the Cabinet minister with the most attuned ear to the views and instincts of an English voter, anticipates problems ahead over money. Nor is there an easy solution. A message to Scotland that "Now you've got your parliament, you're going to get less money from London" will not exactly swell the Labour vote at the next election. Not surprisingly, the Tories are keeping an eye on all of this. As one senior shadow cabinet member put it to me recently, "We are alert to the drumbeat of English nationalism".

That is, as Tony Blair would put it, the "big picture" of devolution. The smaller ones have been troubling as well. Blair has not been thrilled by the reports from Scotland that he has been getting about the Liberal Democrats. The view from Downing Street is that they have yet to learn fully that they are the junior partners in the coalition. A majority of the Parliament still seems likely to oppose the introduction of tuition fees when the issue surfaces again. In the meantime, the meetings of the Parliament have not been especially edifying. MSPs' allowances and their new parliamentary building have been high on the agenda, of little interest to anyone but the newly elected representatives.

Meanwhile, Wales is still reeling from Labour's internal battles. An act of devolution has provoked passionate cries of control freakery from Labour's traditional supporters. Plaid Cymru has emerged as a serious rival to Labour. What is more, the biggest story in Wales since devolution has been the further decline of its architect, Ron Davies, whose risk- taking extended beyond imposing an Assembly on an indifferent nation.

So, behind the excess of celebrations, is it all going badly wrong? It would be churlish to reach such a conclusion without acknowledging the Government's achievement in setting up these devolved bodies in the first place. Let us not forget that it was the failure to implement devolution which in the end brought down the last Labour government in 1979. Labour has talked a good devolution game for many decades, but has consistently failed to deliver. Yesterday, even opponents of the Government's stance, from Sean Connery to newly invigorated Scottish Tories, could not hide their excitement. But it would be wrong, anyway, to write off this project, the most radical acts of this Government by far, on the basis of early teething problems. A number of commentators have written that Blair is rethinking his entire approach to PR and the Lib Dems on the basis of the result in Scotland. Was he really the only politician in the country who did not realise that the electoral system in Scotland would produce a hung parliament? He was aware of the likely outcome and will be watching closely to learn lessons for the Commons.

The Lib Dems have more than their fair share of self-righteous and vain politicians. The less powerful they are, the more self-righteous and vain they tend to be (look at the number of MPs who thought, on reflection, that they were most suited to succeed Paddy Ashdown). But there is such common ground between the two parties in Scotland that a successful partnership is more likely than not. Nor is it surprising that relatively trivial issues dominated early proceedings in Cardiff and Edinburgh as power had not then been fully devolved. As for the big picture, the Tories must tread as carefully as Labour. William Hague will not enter the next election pledged to cut spending on Scotland. A leader who has not a single Scottish MP at Westminster cannot play the English card with a confident flourish.

What is clear, as was evident in the streets of Edinburgh yesterday, is that devolution has injected some vitality into politics. Big issues - beef in Wales, tuition fees in Scotland - may be handled differently than in England. The electoral geography has altered. That is not a bad start. Those who celebrated in Scotland again last night did so with good cause.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'