Leading Article: Welsh lesson for Labour

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was a win by a whisker, but the vote for devolution in Wales means that the ice age of British democracy is over. The votes in Scotland and Wales are only a prelude to a radical reconstruction of this country's constitutional framework, and these two Thursdays past will become footnotes in history. But to have witnessed them is to have been stirred by the thought of what is to come. The size of the turnouts - gratifying in Scotland; discouraging in Wales - will be forgotten, and what will linger in the mind is a compelling example of self-government in action.

Labour's commitment to democracy is not always whole-hearted. But the devolution plans Tony Blair forced the Labour Party to swallow last year have started a debate about Britain's future governance. It has been conducted with civility and, often, with sophistication. And it will go on. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has made it plain this week he would prefer to procrastinate over British membership of the single currency, but this is a luxury, and it will not last forever. If, the Germans and French press on with EMU, Britain will have to respond, and another referendum will be held. The auguries for its conduct and the quality of argument are better than they were when both parties promised a referendum almost a year ago.

The Prime Minister's devolutionary ambitions include England, perhaps because he thought the English might feel left out. He seems to have misread the English, however, for it is hard to detect any sense of expectation in the English regions. The one place where there is real enthusiasm for change is London. Four out of five Londoners want their own mayoral administration, and will vote for that next May. Their eagerness may offer Labour an English solution. Making cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle the focus for devolved power might satisfy the English appetite for it. It is the wealth of the city that provides the economic energy in the region surrounding it.

In the meantime, Wales is a problem because the narrow margin of victory for the Welsh Assembly means that the governance debate can hardly be declared to have been done. Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, is not a good advertisement for Labour's commitment to democracy. For him, a majority of 0.6 per cent is as good as a landslide, but the truth is that Davies and his colleagues have the sensitive task within Wales of winning at least some of the hearts and minds that voted against devolution. To succeed Labour ought to take its proposals for an Assembly back to the operating theatre. It may also have to perform some open-heart surgery on the Labour Party itself.

The campaign demonstrated that Welsh voters are concerned about creating a layer of government in which the old guard - middle-aged, Labour loyalists from the valleys - would dominate. This suspicion of Old Labour is a recurring problem for the Government. People have seen what Labour government looks like locally and too often it has looked like Doncaster, Paisley and Hackney. Securing assent for a Welsh Assembly will be much easier if Tony Blair can show that devolution does not have to mean more of the same local Labour oligarchies.

The principled case for a Welsh Assembly has been diminished not one jot during this campaign. The pounds 7 billion a year spent by the Welsh Office is not adequately supervised by a Secretary of State answering to the House of Commons. Quangos spend large sums of public money, yet escape regular and public accounting. But Labour must make a critical decision now. Ron Davies created the atmosphere for it when he said that devolution is a process and not an event. The question he needs to address is whether it is possible that the Welsh were apathetic about the assembly because is has no teeth. If Labour were to make it clear that the assembly is only the first stage towards devolution, the debate in Wales would revive. The Bill setting up the assembly should contain clauses which would give Cardiff and Westminster room for manoeuvre in the future, perhaps by making it possible to devolve more power to Wales more easily by Order in Council rather than by fresh legislation.

One of the lessons of the Tory era was that British people have negative views about government that they consider excessive. In Wales Labour must push ahead with moves to bring power closer to the people while persuading them the burdens and cost of government will be diminished rather than made more onerous as a result.