Leading article: The voices of Wales call for Blair the democrat to think again

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Over the next few days Tony Blair's mettle will be severely tested. His response will tell us a great deal about his political identity. As Labour offers its considered answer to the marginal approval by Welsh voters of the assembly project, we will learn whether Tony Blair is a democrat. Is this a leader prepared to attend one of democracy's great lessons, that the decisions of people are messy, uncertain, not entirely rational but in the last analysis are the best decisions there are?

Last year he lanced a boil inside his party by imposing on it a scheme for Scottish and Welsh referendums. He upstaged Labour opponents of devolution by commanding the democratic high ground, just as he has since won trick after trick from the Tories. The rhetoric is compelling. New Labour, he has been promising, is a party which has to listen to the plural voices of Britain and specifically to give the residents of the national entities within the United Kingdom another chance - after the Tory era - to express a view about self-government. Scottish residents spoke. Their will is settled. Thursday's vote in Wales did not secure such an outcome.

But perhaps Mr Blair's mind-set is that of the man in Westminster who knows what is best, who prefers the smooth and uniform scheme regardless of local diversity? Scotland and Wales are different, just as the regions of England are hugely diverse. No single scheme can or should be applied. Welsh governance remains in play and it is time to start to think about it once again.

Tony Blair's immediate response was not a good augury, and that of Ron Davies was even more dispiriting. Just because the rules of the game have been followed does not confer legitimacy upon the process - that is the view of a bureaucrat or ideologue, surely not that of a practising politician whose business is inclusion and the mobilisation of maximal agreement. The appropriate response to the expression of opinion by the residents of Wales - and the fact that a fraction of them bothered to turn out is significant - is to think again about the governance of the principality, from top to toe.

Rushed legislation would be a political mistake. It would serve to distract the Blair administration from more pressing concerns and hand the undeserving Tories a weapon and an issue. It would be a signal that this, despite all the New Labour rhetoric, is a government of dogmatists. On May 1 the country willed a switch away from ministers who exulted in their inflexibility; is evidence being prepared here that the voters were mistaken? Legislation for a Welsh assembly should proceed on the basis that the present plan does not carry convincing support in the principality, and that a better-adapted and more convincing proposal needs to be developed, and put to the people of Wales again when it has passed through the Commons. A 0.6 per cent majority is inadequate as a mandate for such a significant constitutional change.

The strongest reason for thinking again is that this campaign has been educational. What has been said and thought during the past few weeks gives ready lessons about the future governance of Wales. Two stand out. They have to do with the importance of intra-regional divisions of interest and with the problem of local government.

That the socio-economic personality of North Wales is different from that of the Wales of the valleys is self-evident; that such differences needs to be recognised in politics and administration came over strongly in the campaign. Is Wales really a political unity or are there intermediate arrangements that better recognise the huge distance, real and figurative, between Cwmbran and Colwyn Bay?

What also became evident is the suspicion bordering on contempt in which much of Welsh local government is held by residents. Yes, the new "unitary" councils have not yet properly bedded down and a lot of the antagonism has to do with the failings of the previous two-tier arrangement. But problems go deeper - and are located nearer to Tony Blair than he might care to realise. Too much of Wales is run by a party which gives every sign of being an oligarchy. Jokes about the Taffia are built round a kernel of truth. The prospect of a Welsh assembly that would be Glamorgan County Council writ large was found unacceptable by large numbers and so it should. But unless and until the Labour Party itself is reformed, the prospects for democratic renewal in Wales - at any level - are slim.

In Wales, like Magnus Magnusson, Labour having started must now finish. The problems which inspired the debate about a national assembly remain to be tackled, among them the accountability of the Welsh appointed bodies and the Welsh Office. There is a good case for representation of the people at a level above that of the locality, but below that of Westminster. But any new scheme for Welsh governance needs to be set before the voters of Wales for their approval. On the basis of this week's vote, a precondition for their assent may be radical change within the Labour Party itself.

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