Comment: Historic gamble based on trust

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The Independent Online
Historic laws should be simple. Their consequences may be immensely complicated, but a Bill that alters the United Kingdom for ever should at least be a document which the citizen can understand. Devolution to Scotland and Wales is not a simple subject, but this government wants to express it in short Bills put through Parliament with short debates.

This is reversing a trend. When Gladstone proposed Home Rule for Ireland in 1886, his Bill was only a few pages long. It spelt out a few things that the Irish Parliament would not be allowed to decide about - flags, orders of chivalry, Imperial foreign policy and a handful of other subjects - and that was all. Everything else was "over to Dublin". But by the 1970s, when Parliament came to debate devolution for Scotland and Wales, the bureaucratic state had grown to maturity. The 1978 Scotland Act was nearly 100 pages long, spelling out in fearsome detail every topic on which Edinburgh could legislate ("devolved" subjects), on which Westminster would continue to legislate ("reserved" subjects) and on which both sides had to haggle for priority ("concurrent" subjects).

Tony Blair and his Cabinet turn away from this sort of thing with a shudder. The Bills for Scotland and Wales are a long way off, the other side of White Papers to be published in the next few months and referendums some time this autumn. But the signs are that they will take the "reserved powers" form, listing only the things that London will continue to do, silently leaving the rest to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd. The reserved list will be longer and fussier than Gladstone's, running from treason and defence down to embryology and Summer Time. But the principle is Gladstonian - everything is allowed except that which is expressly forbidden - and runs against the whole trend of British governance since 1945, in which everything that is not expressly allowed is forbidden. It implies a new trust in ordinary people, a respect for citizenship. This trust underlies the gamble of devolution, which dilutes the venerable centralist authority of the British state in order to let people find their own solutions to their own local problems.

Given the Government's majority, the devolution Bills have a good chance of a clear passage. Mr Blair's strategy is that the autumn referendums should validate the Bills in advance, rather than ratify them after going through Parliament. This prior legitimation, he calculates, will deter the Opposition (and his own backbench rebels) from the kind of obstruction that turned the 1970s legislation into a prolonged nightmare which eventually contributed to the collapse of the Callaghan administation. Opposition spokesmen have been quick to condemn this procedure as undemocratic, because it slights Parliament's sovereignty. But Mr Blair has two more immediate problems. One is the threat of wrecking amendments from the House of Lords, which he may be able to contain by some crude deals behind the arras about the pace and scope of Lords reform. The other is to win the referendums.

The Welsh vote is unpredictable. In 1979 the majority against devolution was substantial but polls suggest that opinion is more evenly divided now. In Scotland the outlook is much more promising. The draft referendum questions were published on Thursday, asking the voter to agree or disagree that "there should be a Scottish Parliament", and that it should or should not have "tax-varying powers". The Scottish Nationalists will almost certainly campaign for a double Yes; the Tories, shattered by the loss of all their Scottish seats, will probably split with one faction opting in desperation for devolution. If there is a problem it lies ironically among Labour supporters. Scottish support for devolution fell off during the election campaign. Many voters felt that Labour was going to win and the urgency to have their own parliament - in which Labour would probably dominate - was therefore less.

By the millennium, a Scottish parliament will probably be sitting in Edinburgh. A Welsh assembly in Cardiff is at least likely. But this will be only the beginning. Managing devolution in this old-fashioned United Kingdom will be extraordinarily difficult, requiring all the commitment, patience and ingenuity that politicians, civil servants and lawyers can muster. Britain will break up. But if it can be made to work, then the grandest constitutional reform since 1832 will leave Britain more democratic, more mature - and more European.