How the Cabinet wrote its script for the new Scotland

So far, so good: Tony Blair has always been anxious that devolution should provoke the minimum of unrest in the rest of the United Kingdom
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has never been a romantic about the Scottish Parliament. Almost his first act as leader in 1994 - just as Margaret Thatcher's had been in 1975 - was to go to a party conference in Scotland and promise his continued commitment to devolution. Unlike her, he did not extricate himself from the promise within a couple of years. But he has always been struck, on his trips to Scotland, that it seemed less of a priority for ordinary voters than it was for politicians and journalists. And he was always anxious to ensure that devolution should provoke the minimum of unrest in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which helps to explain the tortuous and delicate negotiations that led up to Donald Dewar's launch of the White Paper yesterday. There were sharp disagreements on the Cabinet committee which debated the White Paper, though it was never the hotbed of poisonous strife that it was depicted as in some quarters; indeed, Dewar graciously paid tribute to Lord Irvine's chairmanship of the committee at yesterday's full meeting of the Cabinet.

Moreover, the "English lobby" is something of a misnomer when used to describe those anxious to ensure that the White Paper did not take on what they saw as too nationalistic a flavour. Frank Dobson, the unmistakably English Health Secretary, was one of those who raised a number of practical worries about the separation of powers. And Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, was among the fiercest of those arguing that some response to the West Lothian question, and to the over-representation of Scottish MPs at Westminster, was needed. By all accounts Straw clashed on occasion not only with Dewar, but also with Lord Irvine. But Alistair Darling, the Scot who is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and is not, to put it mildly, the most fanatical of devolutionists by temperament, was also among those questioning the allegedly "Braveheart-ish" language of some of the early drafts - written by Scottish Office officials - of the White Paper.

Nor is there much evidence of a deep division over reserving the right to legislate on abortion at Westminster; the issue presents a difficult dilemma for your average liberal-minded politician committed to constitutional reform. On the one hand it is the sort of issue which constitutionally might well have been devolved to Edinburgh; on the other, if it had been, it would have been an open invitation to the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow, Thomas Winning, to lead a ferocious and possibly successful campaign for a more restrictive abortion regime in Scotland, with all the unpalatable consequences of young women fleeing south to buy abortions. The outcome may not be logical, but most non-Catholic Labour politicians, let alone their Liberal Democrat allies, would scarcely have had it otherwise.

What's more, the biggest and most difficult decision of all - the plan to reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster - did not originate within the Cabinet Committee at all. To my certain knowledge, Tony Blair was turning over the question of Scottish representation at Westminster as early as the end of 1995 - almost 18 months before the general election. He dropped a hint to that effect during a trip to Vienna, and although it was denied by his officials at the time, he asked Lord Irvine to consider the representation question as part of a general study aimed at ensuring that the Scottish parliament could be introduced with the minimum of hostility in England.

It was that study which paved the way both for the referendum proposal (announced before the election) and the reduction in Scottish Westminster seats (which wasn't). The reduction in Scottish Westminster seats, in other words, is less a triumph for the "English lobby" on the Cabinet committee than something which the Prime Minister had wanted all along.

The exact outcome nevertheless testifies, as if testimony were needed, to Dewar's skill and maturity as a politician. By holding out for a Boundary Commission review which would not report in time for the reduction to happen until the general election after next, Dewar has managed to make it much more painless. An immediate reduction - which Straw probably would have preferred - might well have meant a series of bloody Labour reselection battles, like the notorious one still reverberating in Glasgow Govan.

This way, the natural process of MPs' retirement should avoid the worst of that. Which is one reason why there has not been more of an outcry in the party's ranks. Nor, as Dewar was careful to hint yesterday, does it automatically mean the loss of 11 seats, which precise arithmetical symmetry with England would require. The enormous size of the area covered by some Scottish seats will still be taken into account by the Commission; it's just that the Commission will now - rightly - be able to ignore the other historic reason that there are more Scottish than English seats per head of population; namely, that MPs from Scotland had the additional workload of handling Scottish as well as UK legislation. Since that no longer applies, the case for a reduction becomes all the stronger.

So this was a good day's work for Dewar, who was on masterly form yesterday and, unlike many of his more recently converted colleagues - including Robin Cook, still a possible Scottish First Minister - has believed deeply for most of his political life in Home Rule.

That shouldn't, nevertheless, eclipse the potential hazards that still lie ahead. Dewar has fought off all attempts to reduce the block grant to Scotland; but it still means that, given Labour's entirely consistent ordinance against using the tax-raising powers, there will be a parliament which will arouse high expectations but will, correctly, have no more money to fulfil them.

There is also the big problem of finding Labour politicians of quality to fill what will no doubt be a majority of seats of the new parliament. The crocodile tears shed by the Tories belie the obvious fact that they are already preparing to use the new parliament to rebuild their dismally shrunken base in Scotland. And Blair has been true to his promises. Not only the First Ministership in Scotland, but also the London mayoralty to be announced next week, are two big jobs, with democratic bases, which a less self-confident and pluralistic politician would have feared rather than fostered. It's a huge revolution. But now it has to be made to work.

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