LEADING ARTICLE : The perils of forced unity

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DEVOLUTION has hit England as an idea and as a problem, even though it may never reach it as a fact. Previously few people outside Scotland and Wales much discussed it. Now, thanks largely to John Major, devolution could dominate politics up to t he nextgeneral election. Voters have reason to groan with boredom and dismay. Over Europe our politicians have already shown how to create obscurity and jargon. Are we to hear about subsidiarity, opt-outs, vetoes, the sovereignty of this and the jurisdi ction of that, not once, but twice over? One is reminded of an American public relations manual: "The customer does not want to know about your problems in the kitchen. He wants his hamburger hot and spicy." And what the British want, surely, are school s thatteach literacy and numeracy; a health service that works and a public transport system ditto; and a more equal and just society that can rediscover the practical meaning of those words in terms of work, wages and the rights and duties of the citize n. We no longer dream of utopias, but we want to hear a proper argument of rival solutions. Instead, we hear Mr Major insisting that devolution "is one of the most dangerous propositions ever put before the British nation" while Gordon Brown, the shadow

chancellor, argues mysteriously that it will "revitalise our regional economies".

And yet devolution matters: the Scottish case for some form of elected assembly is undeniable. Mr Major argues that the UK is a "single national state", but a national state requires a common system of law. The Scottish legal and penal system, education

system and local government are quite distinct from the equivalents in England and Wales. Yet policy on these matters is determined from London. Margaret Thatcher, famously, imposed the poll tax in Scotland before she introduced it south of the border. Less well-known is that Scottish schools were the first to suffer from the chaos created by unlimited parental choice. The Tories could claim no mandate for such policies in Scotland, where they had nothing like a majority of parliamentary seats. Indeed,

the whole business makes a nonsense of mandates and accountability. It is not less of a nonsense because it has existed since 1707, a hangover from when both countries were governed by an oligarchic elite, with little need to pay attention to the forms of representative democracy.

The solution for Scotland is to put a Scottish assembly in charge of what is separately Scottish. But there is no separate system of law or education in Wales, still less in, say, the East Midlands. There is no history of East Midlands' separatism, no n a tional question to be addressed, no apparent demand for regional self-government. The English grievance has a different and more recent origin; that Conservative governments, by creating a multiplicity of quangoes, tinkering with local government boundar ies and removing powers from councils, have made it almost impossible for citizens to know who is responsible for what, where to complain and where to obtain redress. Democratic accountability needs to be restored, but nothing will be clarified by creati ng artificial regions with arbitrary boundaries on top of the existing tiers of councils.

Labour has conflated these two quite separate issues because it fears that, if Edinburgh alone had an assembly, it would be impossible to justify the present level of Scottish representation at Westminster. That, in turn, would reduce the number of Labour MPs. So be it. The country has had enough of a party that acts according to narrow political advantage. It is looking to Labour for something different.

There are dangers here, of course. Scottish MPs, though diminished, would still be allowed to vote on purely English matters at Westminster (just as Ulster Unionists did when Stormont existed, to no complaint from the Conservatives) and that might fuel English nationalism and calls for a truly federal structure, with regional assemblies in Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and London, and a national UK parliament as the (perhaps increasingly useless) meat in the sandwich between Brussels and the constituent parts of an un-United Kingdom. Britain, as a political entity, might then cease to exist. The more certain way for that to happen, however, is for Mr Major and his Cabinet to go on pretending that they know better than Britons north of the border.