Devolution is a failure. Scotland's problems will only be solved by London

'If Tony Blair pays any attention to Scotland, he must be asking himself what on earth went wrong'

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Labour and Scotland. It looked like the perfect match. After two decades of unconsummated passion John Major's departure from Downing Street in May 1997 brought the lovers together at last. The party of Keir Hardie was no longer restricted to just speaking up for Scotland. Now Labour could govern, too - and not as a remote overlord comfortably ensconced at Westminster. Scottish Labour was coming home to a brand new assembly in Edinburgh. Nirvana was nigh.

Labour and Scotland. It looked like the perfect match. After two decades of unconsummated passion John Major's departure from Downing Street in May 1997 brought the lovers together at last. The party of Keir Hardie was no longer restricted to just speaking up for Scotland. Now Labour could govern, too - and not as a remote overlord comfortably ensconced at Westminster. Scottish Labour was coming home to a brand new assembly in Edinburgh. Nirvana was nigh.

So how is it possible that just three and a bit years later, a mere one session into the new Scottish Parliament, it is Labour voters that are looking most despondent about what it has created? What alchemy explains the process whereby Conservatives now enthuse about a process they once condemned, and nationalists thrive in the "wee pretendy" parliament they used to deride?

The burden of governing provides a partial explanation. Year one of Donald Dewar's coalition has seen a depressing succession of errors, public blood-lettings, sloth and in-fighting. To increasing numbers on the left, Scotland is turning out an even bigger disappointment than Tony Blair. The reason? Well, Scots really wanted home-rule and their disappointment about just how little good it has done is thus commensurately greater.

Power was brought home so that it could be used. Or that was the conviction which drove many grassroots supporters of the Labour cause.

It hasn't happened. The only refreshing gesture of radicalism - abolition of Section 28 - provoked a barrage of vilification which horrified those who had taken the myth of Scottish liberalism at face value. Other first-term legislation was either dull, technical, trivial or all three.

Mr Dewar's return from extended sick-leave last week was supposed to put the whole project back on track. Instead, the First Minister returned to confront a full-blown crisis over the chaos surrounding school exam results. It is widely expected that he will lose his friend and education minister, Sam Galbraith, as a result.

And just as the exams crisis went critical, Mr Dewar was stabbed in the chest by one of his own officials. Details of the executives "Programme for Government" were leaked. They revealed that Labour's own team regard their strategy for devolution-year-two as deeply "uninspiring" and "unambitious". Mr Dewar's disastrous week ended when the Labour MSP, John McAllion, a passionate devolutionist, published an article openly considering the need for either a new political party based around Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party, or a red/green alliance.

If Mr Blair pays any attention to Scotland these days, he must be asking himself what on earth has gone wrong. To understand he will need to come to terms with the reality of Scottish Labour Politics. He will not find it edifying. But he may begin to understand why so many of Labour's most radical Scottish intellects - Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell among them - were very late converts to devolution or never converted at all.

In the mid Seventies when Labour was bullying, cajoling and block-voting devolution into its election manifesto, the issue had one crucial attraction. Unlike most controversial issues it did not fall on either side of Labour's internal left/right schism. This was not Clause Four. It was supported and opposed by approximately equal numbers on each wing of the party. In the days when Labour Conferences hosted thuggery on a par with Old Firm football derbies, the ideological neutrality of devolution was attractive. But it left a policy gap. Without the momentum created by either militant impossibilism or reform-minded social democracy, devolution became a pale and lifeless thing - a clever solution to a theoretical problem which also served as a convenient bulwark against nationalist advance.

Gradually this vacuum came to suit Scotland's real conservatives - the men leading the Labour Party. Newcomers to Scotland are often surprised by the extent to which the Scottish Establishment is a Labour Establishment. For those accustomed to London and the Home counties, it is mystifying to discover a judicial system, civil service and professional salariat who share the wealth and ambition of English suburban Tories but profess staunch Labour sympathies. The surprise often leads to the mistaken assumption that wealthy Scots are, nevertheless, conscience-driven radicals. It is complete tosh.

Scottish affluent-radicalism is a myth. The upper middle-class backs Labour because Labour is an upper-middle class party. It is as conservative about Scottish institutions and society as the Tory Party is about its English equivalents. Lord Irvine of Lairg is not a unique concoction. Scottish Labour is brimming over with men who would have been lifelong Tories if they lived anywhere else.

With Labour's great Scottish experiment now looking so shop-soiled, Mr Dalyell is not the only party grandee to feel nostalgic for Unionism. A coterie of junior ministers in the Westminster government has the same inclination. An old and dimly remembered argument is making new friends in Scotland. It recalls that Labour radicals three decades ago distrusted devolution because they regarded it as parochialism.

They harked back to ideas like internationalism and remembered that Scotland's social and economic development had been accelerated by the union with England. In theory the establishment of a Scottish parliament does not have to restrict cross-fertilisation between Scottish thinkers and those beyond her borders. But theory ignored the possibility that Holyrood would be stuffed full of the second rate.

The intellectual case for unionism is being heard again because almost all of Labour's thinking Scots still practise their politics in London. The Scottish parliament is such a disappointment that the few bright hopes who did become MSPs now acknowledge that even Mr Blair's Whitehall looks dynamic compared with Edinburgh. Some say that the luminously clever Donald Dewar knows it, too. That is why his friends fear he may be forced to linger longer than is good for him.

* Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'

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