The real revolution is in London

Forget devolution - the capital has 5 million voters, more than in all of Scotland and Wales. And soon they'll have a new mayor
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The Independent Online
If we can hear ourselves think for a moment above the skirl of triumphalist bagpipes, let us speculate. In 50 years' time, will the publication of the proposals for devolution of power to Scotland be remembered as the moment that our democracy was transformed?

I would lay odds now that it won't. The moment of genuine transformation will come, not with the inauguration of Scotland's first minister, but with the election of London's mayor. Both will purport to modernise our democracy, but while one offers an ethnic variant of politics as we know it, the other could, with care and vision, take us into the political future.

This is not an attempt to rain on Scotland's parade. Devolution will undoubtedly bring some political powers closer to the Scottish people. The fact that the voices debating their education, health, environment and so forth will do so in Scottish accents will make everyone feel better.

However, it would be utterly naive to suppose that this will fundamentally change politics in the UK. Both the anti-devolution hysteria and the pro-devolution euphoria are misplaced. The Scottish parliament will have the right to vary taxes, but it will not, in the end, be able to override the strictures of the UK chancellor. For example, Mr Brown could decide that public spending north of the Border should be cut by as much as any revenue raised by the parliament, leaving the Scottish first minister's purse strings firmly in the grip of the Treasury. Certain kinds of laws - abortion rights, for example - will be the prerogative of the UK parliament, and the Scots will not be able to override them. This may cause some irritation in Edinburgh, but most Scots know that they, and we, are better off together than apart. In fact, unless there are provisions not yet announced, there is little likelihood of a Scottish breakaway.

What is perhaps more disappointing - or reassuring, if you're a Scottish Tory - is that the parliament will either reflect or reinforce the worst features of its Westminster parent. Seventy-nine SMPs, as they are to be called, will be elected by the first-past-the-post system; the rest will be appointed by the political parties in proportion to their electoral success.

The result will be to put the entire process into the hands of the political machines, particularly the Labour machine. In essence, Scotland will become a one-party semi-state. It feels like a missed opportunity; the Scots will get a shiny new political box, and will open it to find politics as usual.

What is proposed for London, on the other hand, feels like politics as never before. We know that the Green Paper out this week will offer the capital a mayor elected by London's 5 million voters (more, by the way, than in Scotland and Wales together). The mayor and the assembly in London won't have half of Edinburgh's formal powers. However, they will have a kind of legitimacy unprecedented in British history.

In 1,000 years we have never been asked to elect anyone to do anything - they've merely had to go somewhere and to speak on our behalf. The British method has always been to elect a group of representatives who then collectively, and without our further participation, appoint a leader, or an executive, or a prime minister.

The distinction may seem academic. But remember: one of the reasons the Tories were able to get rid of the GLC in the first place was precisely because the voters of London had voted for Labour representatives in their constituencies, assuming that those representatives would then appoint the "moderate" Andrew McIntosh as their leader, and effective boss of London. Instead, they got Ken Livingstone. It may be that Londoners grew to love Ken - but he was not their choice.

Similar criticism could be levelled at Tory MPs' decision to exclude party members from the election of their leader; we know that had the members voted, the result would have been different.

If we can ignore the noise of self-selected contenders preparing for battle (one of them has already hired his campaign manager), we can see that the mayor of London will be a new kind of political creature for Britain. He or she will be the first person in British history elected to carry out an executive task and to wield power. The mayor will probably belong to a political party, but he or she will not have to answer to a party caucus for their actions - an advantage not shared even by the Prime Minister. If reinforced by a system of election such as alternative voting, which allows voters to mark their first, second and third preferences, we may see a political leader unshackled from the cage of party discipline.

In short, the mayor's first loyalty can be to the city rather than to his political mates. That, in turn, may well produce a new openness and flexibility within the political parties themselves: if the chief can dissent, why not the Indians? At its extreme, might there not be places in the government of the world's greatest city for people of more than one party and of none? Is there some natural force other than the whispering of personal ego that prevents Tony Banks and Steve Norris working together to make London better?

Of course, there's another partner in the proposed set-up. The assembly is meant to act as a check on the mayor's power. That is reasonable in principle, but the details are important. Handled wrongly, the assembly could become a scaled-down home for sad leftovers from the GLC era, eternally carping, suspicious and grimly striving to restrain the power of an adventurous and popular mayor.

That is what will happen if its members are elected on the same old borough boundaries, using a first-past-the-post system. Each member of the assembly will come bearing the shopping list of his or her local area, and politics will be reduced to horse-trading between villages. On the other hand, were there to be a system of proportional representation whereby each party got a number of seats allocated according to the number of votes, we could end up with a chamber full of party placemen.

The answer may lie in between; if London can't come up with a creative solution, the whole enterprise isn't worth the candle. If, however, we make the right choice for the capital, the year 2000 could see the emergence of a political culture in London that is as exciting as its artistic output. And within months it will spread across our land.

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