After devolution, not revolution but evolution

Encouraged by their success in Scotland last week, the government plans further local reforms, starting in London
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The Independent Online
After the result came the hyperbole. In the aftermath of the stunning success of Scotland's devolutionists, politicians of all descriptions lost little time predicting a new dawn for British politics.

The vote, according to the Welsh Office minister Peter Hain, spelled the end of the "anachronistic rituals and centralising elitism of the old system". His backbench colleague, Fraser Kemp, predicted a new urgency "to get moving on a directly elected assembly for the north of England". And the Conservative former Cabinet minister, John MacGregor, warned that the move would "inevitably" lead to an English Parliament.

But will changes in Scotland and (assuming this week's referendum goes as expected) in Wales really have a profound affect on England? The answer appears to be yes, although the precise shape of British politics in 10 or 20 years' time is impossible to predict. Even among Labour's architects of constitutional change the implications of recent events have barely been thought through.

For decades the Labour Party has tied itself up in knots over devolution. Central to its difficulties has been the relationship between England and Scotland. It was in the 1970s that Tam Dalyell, the veteran anti-devolutionist, coined his famous West Lothian question. The difficulty, he pinpointed, was the relationship between Scotland's new Parliament, and its continuing representation at Westminster. Why, Dalyell asked, should an MP representing a Scottish constituency be able to vote on education in England, but have no voice over policy at the schools in his constituency? (Under devolution, those responsibilities will, of course, be devolved to a Scottish Parliament with a separate membership.)

In the 1992 general election manifesto, Labour's answer to the West Lothian conundrum was that England, as well as Wales, would have elected regional assemblies too. After the election defeat that pledge was speedily dropped. There was little evidence of demand for regional voices. Instead, Labour policy-makers concentrated on efforts to democratise the bureaucracy which administered central government initiatives and quangos in 10 English regions - the so-called regional government offices. Even that has now been scaled back, leaving the West Lothian issue as live as ever.

In the short term this has two important implications. The first is that the number of MPs Scotland can send to Westminster will be reviewed by the next Boundary Commission, and almost certainly reduced.

The second concerns the formula under which Scotland received more generous funding from the Treasury than English regions, in deference to its geographical size. In the next couple of years there will be no change, but the government has given no commitment to retain this arrangement. "No departmental spending can be exempt from review," said one government source last week. That means funding for Scotland is almost certain to come under attack.

England, however, will have new structures in the regions. The most important of these - the only one which will be directly elected - will be in London, where the government wants to create a new, relatively small assembly for the capital, and a New York-style city mayor. Government plans to legislate for these changes will be put to the test in a London referendum next year on local election day, 7 May. If, as expected, the plans go ahead, a powerful London city mayor, with an inevitably high media profile, would quickly emerge as a significant national figure. That, almost inevitably, would prompt other cities to copy the London experiment.

Then there are the economic initiatives being planned by the deputy prime minister, John Prescott. His priority is to create a network of nine regional development agencies. Details of the duties and powers of these bodies, which will dispose of the pounds 5.6bn currently spent on development in the regions, have yet to be decided.

By switching the focus to economic regeneration Mr Prescott is hoping for evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change. His allies point out that this reform will bring the English regions into line with Scotland and Wales, which have both had successful development agencies since the 1970s. Repeating their success, says one minister, is the vital pre-requisite of "closing the democratic deficit".

Here the government is treading carefully. Where it once wanted full democratisation of government regional offices, now it proposes regional chambers to work in tandem with them. These will be made up of business, trade union and local authority representatives.

And it will be only in areas where there is clear public support, and local government structures are unitary, that the drive for regional assemblies has any chance of success. Even then, with no legislation in place, devotees will almost certainly have to wait until the next century.

Yet perhaps the most important aspect of the constitutional changes now under way lies in the changed voting systems they will produce. In London the election of a city mayor may force the political parties to adopt US-style primaries to select their official candidate. Both the Scottish and Welsh bodies are destined to have a more proportional system of electing their new members.

In Scotland that raises the prospect of a semi-permanent coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. That fact was highlighted last week when Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, mused in an interview about a coalition with Labour.

Meanwhile, government moves to reform the voting system for the European elections, and the possibility of PR for local elections in Scotland, will also make the first-past-the-post system at Westminster look increasingly anomalous. Although Mr Blair has yet to be convinced of the need for voting reform, some of his leading lieutenants, including Peter Mandelson, the Minister Without Portfolio, advocate electoral refrom (albeit a system short of full-blown proportional representation).

Change, said one minister last week, "may not come next year or the year after, but it will be unstoppable". That, of course, assumes that devolution retains much of the support it won last Thursday in Scotland.