Thursday Books: Devolution under a microscope

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RON DAVIES is famous for the "moment of madness" with a Rastafarian on Clapham Common that terminated his tenure as Secretary of State for Wales. He is less well known for his more recent moments of sanity about the nature of home rule. One of these moments emerges in the foreword to the important collection of essays on the 1997 devolution referendums edited by Bridget Taylor and Katarina Thomson. These studies represent the definitive work on the votes, with contributions from such as David Butler, Kenneth O Morgan, James Kellas and John Curtice.

We have come a long way since, as Kenneth O Morgan mentions, Victorian compilers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica could compose an entry which read "for Wales - see England". Yet support for the new National Assembly in Cardiff remained grudging, attracting a "yes" vote of just 50.3 per cent. Ron Davies is upfront about this: "By failing to mobilise support for the concept of an assembly beyond the circles of Labour in Wales, we failed to broaden support for it among the population at large and the decision to hold a referendum cruelly exposed that fact."

It also exposes the fact that, crudely, Wales may be less of a nation than Scotland. The crucial differences between Welsh and Scottish traditions, their contrasting civil societies, the distinct roles of religion and language, and differential attitudes to "Britishness" - too often ignored as the two nations are routinely lumped together for discussion - are well explored in this impressive collection.

What is equally applicable to Scotland and Wales, though, is Davies's insight that devolution will be not an event but a process. What is the process leading to? Well, it was supposed to lead to the dishing of the Nats. But, given that both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are about to become the official opposition in their respective nations, we could be forgiven for thinking that, so far from making the separatists irrelevant, devolution will afford them a loud voice. Welsh and Scots politics may be permanently disfigured by policies being debated in terms of the national issue and, in the Scottish case, by Quebec-style destabilisation as the SNP holds out the prospect of a referendum on independence.

The long-term stability of the devolution settlement is discussed in another timely contribution to the debate, by Vernon Bogdanor. There are, as he makes clear, few successful precedents for the experiment in constitution- making the Government is now embarked upon. In fact, much of his work is taken up with entertaining accounts of the long and unhappy history of attempts at devolution in Britain, principally the efforts of politicians, from Burke to Gladstone to Lloyd George, to achieve a workable scheme for keeping Ireland in the Union.

Such attempts have mostly been in the form of "asymmetrical devolution" where, as now, some parts of the UK were to enjoy different degrees of autonomy. But these, and more symmetrical German or US-style solutions (where all states have equal powers), always ran up against the same tensions. These came from the question of representation at Westminster; from the unbalanced basis for devolution when 85 per cent of the population live in England, a place with no political identity of its own; the feeble demand for regional assemblies in England; and tussles over money. The only province of the UK to experience a prolonged period of devolved government is the one part that never wanted it - Northern Ireland, from 1921 to 1972 an Orange statelet and an unhappy experience.

What does give grounds for limited optimism is the international experience of asymmetrical devolution. According to Bogdanor, in Spain, Belgium and Italy devolution has led not to break-up but to power-sharing. In Catalonia and the Basque country it has weakened the demand for independence. But this is not an inevitable outcome. Formal and informal mechanisms and a coalitionist culture exist to accommodate the inevitable problems.

Asymmetrical devolution works, in other words, where there is a will for it to work. Donald Dewar will settle differences with Tony Blair amicably enough. But imagine him - or the SNP leader Alex Salmond - dealing with an "ultra-low-tax" UK Tory administration led by Michael Portillo. If Portillo wanted, say, radical reform of welfare, then the Scots could simply reply: "Either this nonsense stops at the border, or we want out of the Union."

The absence of a will to balance the concepts of the supremacy of Westminster, with its "reserved powers", and of devolution itself would make separatism inevitable. What we have is not so much devolution, then, as a Scots insurance policy against the return of Thatcherism, secured on a local popular mandate. Scotland leaving the UK? It might take only a moment of madness.