Tim Luckhurst: After this, can we say that Scotland is the better for devolution?

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'Devolution cannot identify a single accomplishment which Whitehall could not have delivered better'

Scottish devolution will face its darkest hour today when the First Minister, Henry McLeish, rises to answer an opposition motion of censure. The principal indictment is already proven and Mr McLeish has confessed it after months of sly dissembling and calculated amnesia. He received £36,000 in rental for sub-letting an office for which he received an allowance from the Commons. For 14 years, Mr McLeish did not declare the dividend. He is under investigation by the police and the inland revenue. But the entire episode was, he insists, "a muddle not a fiddle". He is adamant that he will remain in office.

In the short term, Henry McLeish is undoubtedly right. He faced the only jury which can hang him when he met the Labour group of members of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday. They did not bang their desks in approbation but they behaved according to tribal instinct, not higher principles. Many accept that their leader has been shockingly economical with the truth, horribly inept in his handling of allegations, first published nearly eight months ago, and transparently bereft of the openness on which Scotland's Parliament was founded. No matter; they have perceived that the real threat lies in the way McLeish's conduct has damaged public confidence in devolved institutions. If he goes, then home rule itself will be subjected to the sort of scrutiny it is ill-equipped to endure.

On that they are right. Following the original revelations of wrongdoing, the "devolvocracy" of journalists, politicians and academics has been quick to warn that thorough investigation of sleaze and bungling risks lasting damage to the experiment in which they place such hopes for personal advancement. Devolution is not ready for truth. It is a faltering thing, barely able to identify a single accomplishment which Whitehall could not have delivered better and panic-stricken by lingering crises like the wild overspend on Scotland's new parliament building.

Less than 48 hours before Henry McLeish faced his personal Westland, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell, told the Commons that she would consult widely on her statutory duty to reduce the number of politicians sitting in the Scottish Parliament. MSPs are quaking at the prospect of a cull which the Scotland Act promised to enact in parallel with reduced Scottish representation at Westminster. These were the prices Donald Dewar and Tony Blair swore to pay in return for creating the most over-governed country in Europe. On the Mound in Edinburgh, the new class of devolved politician prays Mrs Liddell will let them off the hook.

She would be mad. If New Labour's metropolitan elite can bear to contemplate what they have created in Edinburgh and Cardiff, they will find little in which to take pride. Mike German, the deputy first minister of the Welsh Assembly has temporarily stood down from office pending investigations into expenses claims he made in his previous job. Costs on palatial new premises for devolved institutions have broken free from all constraints. The "jobs for the boys" mentality which has long alarmed principled members of the Welsh and Scottish Labour Parties has manifested itself with new vigour. A recent poll revealed that 46 per cent in Wales favour the immediate abolition of the Assembly. Scotland has not dared ask the same question since the McLeish fiasco paralysed national politics.

Achievements? Well, the Scottish Executive has devised a stand-alone system of student finances which has reduced applications by English students to Scottish universities, so reinforcing the parochialism which critics of devolution predicted. Scotland's once-legendary school examinations system has been reduced to a shambles. Henry McLeish has committed his party to a profligate system of free care for the wealthiest of pensioners, against the advice of Whitehall and colleagues in the British government. Bitter sectarian passions were unleashed in the debate over repeal of Section 28. Scotland looked aghast at the murder of an asylum seeker in Glasgow's Sighthill estate. Racism? That was an English failing, wasn't it? After all, we never let them in.

It is said in Whitehall that the old connections between Edinburgh and London were sundered by the death of Donald Dewar. A system which, though unproven and battered by early amateurism, managed to function while Scotland was led by a man with Cabinet experience and friends in Cabinet, has fallen into disrepair under the blunt ministerings of a first minister few in London know and still fewer respect. Now, say devolution theorists who love the idea but do not have to live there, Scotland, like Ireland before it, will take decades to learn the conduct of a mature democracy.

Progressives should pose themselves an honest question. We have a serviceable government in Whitehall. Even under four Conservative administrations with scant support in Scotland or Wales, that tried and tested machine delivered competent, mature government and steady economic growth. Precisely what has devolution achieved? Has Scotland or Wales become more tolerant, more diverse, more open to new ideas? Thrice no. Parochialism, graft and incompetence are not noted progressive ideals.

The best remaining answer is that a democratic deficit has been filled. Scotland and Wales are now governed by the parties they choose, not by those elected by majority opinion throughout the UK. That was Donald Dewar's belief. But it is an intrinsically nationalist perspective. If the United Kingdom still exists, and devolution depends on the assumption that it does and must, then there is no reason why any part of the whole should be protected from the freely expressed wishes of the majority. Under the pre-devolved system, Scotland would still have a Labour government, but it would be led by Tony Blair, not Henry McLeish. It is hard to imagine how that could be worse than the present reality.

The survival of a first minister Scotland has never respected and now no longer trusts places a responsibility on those who rushed to create devolution in the world's most stable and enduring democracy. They should consider whether devolution works at all. Critics always warned that political talent would remain in London, abandoning Scotland and Wales to the dinosaur tendency.

Protecting the ambitions and incomes of assorted parochial barons was not what constitutional reform was deemed to be about. English regional government anyone? Enthusiasts should watch Henry McLeish squirm and think again.

TimLckhrst@aol.com

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