Tim Luckhurst: England needs devolution like a hole in the head

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have long wondered what John Prescott dreams about. My list usually includes an American- style constitution that would give the Deputy Prime Minister automatic assent to ascend to the premiership in the event of something nasty happening to Tony. That and an accident involving Peter Mandelson and some well-rotted compost.

Wrong. Mr. Prescott dreams of devolving political power to the English regions. His precious hours of REM sleep, he says, are filled with visions of dynamic local assemblies merrily filling England's "democratic deficit" with accountable prosperity and progress.

No matter that the "democratic deficit" phrase was Donald Dewar's and that he did not believe England had one. Mr Prescott's dreams are his own, even if the language employed in them is borrowed (and thus unusually eloquent). If he had any decency he would keep them private.

Sadly for that large majority of the British population that has been spared the mediocrity of devolution, the Deputy Prime Minister has gone public. In partnership with Stephen Byers, the most transparently incredible minister in the Cabinet, he has advanced his plan for English Regional Assemblies.

England should resist. The Prime Minister was right when he authorised an official at No 10 to explain that the experience with devolution in Scotland and Wales has convinced him that England needed it "like a hole in the head". Scotland reveals the principal flaws in devolved government. Here it has not delivered power to the electorate. It has consolidated the stranglehold of a parochial élite composed of Labour apparatchiks too incompetent even to win election to Westminster.

Three years into the experiment, Scotland does not feel confident and dynamic. Instead, as The Herald ironically revealed just as Mr Prescott revealed his plans to Parliament, "we just feel an awful sense of anti-climax". No wonder. The flowering of debate long predicted by campaigners for a Scottish Parliament was murdered at birth by a system of election that ensures that every candidate must be vetted by party managers. Patronage, not independence of mind, is the route to advancement. Generously, Mr Prescott is proposing the same thing for England.

Devolution has made it harder to win office without sponsorship from the Labour Party. Its nominees stuff every quango in the land. A party incapable of winning 50 per cent of the vote exercises 90 per cent of the power. Devolution means machine politics, not diversity. One First Minister has been driven from office amid allegations of financial irregularity. His successor is deemed a failure by 72 per cent of Scottish voters six months into his term of office. Business laments the absence of a vision for the Scottish economy.

The few capable politicians who followed Donald Dewar into Scotland's legislature have either resigned, as Wendy Alexander, the then Minister for Enterprise, did last week, or been sacked. They loiter on the back benches, angry but impotent or, like Alex Salmond, the the former SNP leader, return to the comparative sanity of the House of Commons.

English devo-enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that even supporters have described the Scottish Executive as "a place where failed councillors go to die". Will things be different in England? It seems unlikely. The region most anxious for devolution, the North-east, is, like Scotland, dominated by a Labour establishment preserved from the era of the brontosaurus. These are the people who will grab ministerial jobs, cars and expense accounts if a referendum consents to the change.

Principled enthusiasts for the idea of devolution owe it to the rest of the population to ask themselves: who really benefits? The answer in Scotland has been a narrow sectional interest culled from the corrupt culture of single-party local councils. Devolution has been brought into disrepute as these low-grade career politicians knife each other for position and wrangle over the stupendous cost of an unnecessary new parliament building.

Mr Prescott is promoting a myth. He may get away with it. The failure of the UK media to pay attention to events in Scotland since 1999 has left the impression that Scotland has prospered massively under devolution. Yet Scottish economic growth lags persistently behind that achieved in England. Business-failure figures are alarming. The one upside of a devolved administration that more than 60 per cent of Scots believe to be a failure is that it has received generous financing from the Treasury. That, not radicalism, has permitted such policies as the partial abolition of student fees.

But if everyone chooses devolution, who will finance the differential largesse? Even with the additional factor of national pride, which keeps Scots hoping that the parliament they chose will one day make them proud, devolution to Edinburgh has made voters more sceptical about government. So much so that yesterday The Scotsman was reporting that Scottish Labour is so short of support that it plans to draft in members from England to fight next year's Scottish election campaign.

Oh England! Devolve if you want to, but don't delude yourselves that you are following best practice. And don't say you weren't warned.

TimLckhrst@aol.com

Comments