McLeish: Repeated crises have tarnished this vision of 'a new style of politics'

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Indy Politics

When Tony Blair unveiled Labour's manifesto for the 1997 general election, devolution was given pride of place with the stirring clarion call for "a new style of politics".

The opening of the first Scottish Parliament in 300 years and the first self-government in Wales for 600 were to lead the Labour Party's ambitious constitutional reforms.

A year later, with the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland was also promised its version of home rule. And London would have the UK's very first directly elected mayor.

Yet by the time the Prime Minister took the fateful resignation phone call from Henry McLeish yesterday, the whole devolution project was looking tarnished. Returning from Washington, he was brought back to domestic affairs with a bump when he took the call in his car from Heathrow.

Barely 18 months after its birth, the Scottish Parliament is on to its third leader, and the Welsh Assembly is on to its second. In Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly has only just squeaked back into life after months of bitter infighting. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, continues to cause the Government headaches.

Having received early popular backing, each of the devolved bodies has had to deal with crises, bitter party factionalism and "personal tragedies" for their leaders.

Wales was the first to succumb even before the Assembly was opened, when Ron Davies, the Secretary of State, was forced to resign in 1998 after his "moment of madness" on Clapham Common.

Mr Davies had been tipped to become the First Minister. Instead, Alun Michael beat Rhodri Morgan to the post in 1999. But he was forced to quit ahead of a no-confidence vote over his failure to secure European funding for the country.

The selection for Labour's candidate for Mayor of London was equally fraught, with Mr Livingstone being beaten by a whisker by Frank Dobson, only to win handsomely as an independent the election for Mayor. Scotland seemed to be exempt from such problems until the untimely death of Donald Dewar last year triggered panic in Downing Street. With union votes and heavy arm-twisting by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, Mr McLeish beat off a challenge by Jack McConnell.

Critics have claimed that the politicians in the devolved assemblies are simply not good enough for high office. Acutely aware of such accusations, Mr Blair instructed his spokesman yesterday to reassure the public. "Tony Blair believes that devolution has been an enormous success. Devolution is working," the spokesman said. Whether the voters agree remains to be seen.