First blood to the flag-wavers

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Yesterday saw the first flash of steel in a war that promises fresh battles in the forthcoming year. Blood was drawn, but not over familiar issues such as the economy or Europe. This battleground - constititutional reform - has hardly been visited since the dying days of the last general election. In a New Year interview, John Major struck his first blow with a spirited attack on the Labour Party's plan for devolution in Scotland and Wales. It was, the Prime Minister said, "one of the most danger ous propositions that has ever been put to the British nation".

On the face of it, Mr Major's language was strangely extreme. The idea of devolution, after all, is hardly new. For many years, most Scots have voted for parties supporting the recall of Scotland's parliament. As long ago as 1914, the Liberals won 80 percent of the seats in Scotland on a self-government platform.

But few English voters are aware of such matters. Mr Major's comments were designed to provoke and address their fears. By wrapping himself in the Union Jack, he has signalled the opening of a Tory campaign against a vast and unruly programme of constitutional change planned by the Opposition, of which devolution is but a part.

The Conservatives have seized the high ground. Over the past few years Labour has adopted a bewildering array of policies - a Bill of Rights, regional government, freedom of information legislation, reform of both Houses of Parliament and a referendum onvoting reform - but failed to stir the electorate's passions in favour of such change. As Prime Minister, Tony Blair would seek to surrender considerable powers to the judiciary and a regional level of government These major developments need a great deal of explaining. Yet Labour's complacent attitude in not arguing for or marketing its plans properly has left voters vulnerable to traditionalist scaremongering.

There is a strong case for reform. The British system of government is antiquated, over-centralised and less democratic than is the case in many Western countries. Disillusionment with political institutions ranging from the monarchy to local government has been growing apace. Yet Labour has failed to harness this discontent in the cause of major reform.

Instead, debate has been confined to the chattering classes, those at home with the institutional niceties that preoccupy groups such as Charter 88. Yet the history of constitutional reform shows that it only occurs when there is a groundswell of support. No such clamour greets much of Labour's programme: who would march for the creation of regional government in England?

Implementing constitutional change is fraught with obstacles: the failure of the last Labour government to introduce Scottish devolution should be a lesson on that score. Any government seeking change needs to have a clear sense of priority and be humbleabout what can be achieved. Harold Wilson's government failed to bring about even a modest reform of the House of Lords which would have deprived hereditary peers of their seats.

Yet Tony Blair is backing an institutional revolution so sweeping that it would surely overwhelm any incoming Labour administration. Much of the detail has still to be worked out. The anticipated division of power between Westminster and a Scottish parliament over taxation, for example, remains unclear. So when John Major made dire warnings yesterday about the proposed changes, he struck a strong chord with many voters. By now Labour should have made answers to these questions familiar to the bulk of the electorate.

Part of the problem is that the Opposition appears to have concluded that constitutional reform - like nationalisation in the past - offers a panacea. Labour retains an instinctive statism that lures the party into the mistaken belief that creating new layers of government will automatically answer Britain's problems. Yet many voters are now sceptical about expanding government. The history of quangos has also alerted people to the dangers of corruption and patronage arising when new forms of civil administration are created.

Labour's big idea - constitutional reform - is a good one but it is poorly defended and thought out. If it is not to perish under waves of Conservative reaction, the programme must be pared down to a practical size. If Labour's policies are not made morecredible, the party's electability will be threatened once the Conservatives rally their forces. Equally, if Mr Blair does reach Downing Street, he could easily destroy his first chance of wielding power by becoming bogged down in reforming too much, too quickly.