Now Blair must go out and sell his vision of reform

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What has happened to "the constitutional question"? Has it been lost? Has the Lord Chancellor made off with it to his Argyllshire fastness, hoping to frame it while no one was looking? After all, we were told the constitution was going to be a great political cause for the new government; and so far, nary a cheep.

In fact, the bird is just about to crow. Political reform in general, and devolution in particular, has been the subject of a ferociously hard and at times tough battle inside government. Finally, a week tomorrow, the White Paper on Scottish and Welsh devolution will be published - the fruit of many intense hours of cabinet committee struggle, which ended yesterday morning. That will begin a huge political debate which will engulf those countries and much of England too. Already there have been lurid stories of ferocious rows over whether the Scots should control their own abortion laws or not, and which building is right for the new parliament, and whether the Scots and Welsh should have their funding cut as a punishment for greater freedom.

Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, has tussled mightily with the Lord Chancellor, now married to his former wife, and Jack Straw, the enthusiastically English Home Secretary, among others. Dewar has had a particularly tough job. He is partly there to hold a straining Union together. He is assailed by the Scots in general and The Scotsman in particular for every species of betrayal, while his English MPs sometimes seem to regard him as a nationalist interloper.

Yet, as the smoke from cabinet-ministerial battle clears, Dewar, a very shrewd operator indeed, will emerge pretty well. The big questions about cutting the number of Scottish MPs and cutting public spending in Scotland and Wales have been put off. There is strong English talk about returning to those issues - the new Boundary Commission will look again at Scottish over-representation at Westminster, for instance. But that is fair enough.

What matters is that Dewar has delivered on the central promise of producing a package of important devolved powers, with Scotland taking control over the big domestic stuff - education, health, housing, law reform. If the Scottish parliament is established, doing its job well and becoming popular, it will accrue more powers in time. If not, not.

The question of who is sovereign - the people or the Westminster parliament - has been sensibly side-stepped. The view in government is that the people of Scotland are sovereign in the sense of being able to choose their own destiny; but while they remain in the British Union, Westminster remains the supreme constitutional power. Overall, a process of deciding who should do what, which dragged on endlessly through the last Labour administration, has been efficiently telescoped into a few intense, difficult but successful weeks. That, at least, is the view of civil servants involved.

Now the job of selling begins - not only to the people of Scotland and Wales, but to Middle England too. That cannot be untied from the wider constitutional agenda, the promise of a new settlement between voters and government that was made before the election. We have heard very little about that. A rather fishy silence, it seemed to me. I remain suspicious about whether a proper Freedom of Information Bill will arrive in the next parliamentary session. Also, we should feel nervous about Labour's commitment to pluralism until we see their detailed plans for obtaining a referendum on voting reform.

But this government has barely got going. It is a little early to be jumping about crying "treachery"! Enough of that. The years of Conservative Party decay helped to produce an ever more hysterical language of journalistic and political criticism of ministers, which ended up alienating people from politics entirely. We need a more moderate and calibrated style of criticism for the new administration: not every delay is betrayal, nor every amendment a sell-out.

All that said, these are still uneasy times for reformers. At times this seems a government intoxicated by the strength of its own pragmatism. People are the answer to problems, not structures: bring in a Branson, pick up a Puttnam, take away a Taylor. There is a lot of truth in that - Blair is surrounding himself with experience and talent that, frankly, Labour has lacked and needs in power.

But the demolition of ideology and the reliance on "good chaps" isn't value free. It is centralist and, in the longer term, conservative too. The chaps, however good, are picked from a small group of successful metropolitan networkers. That keeps the circle of advice small and relatively homogeneous. As time goes on, and the pressures of government increase, the convenience of tired ministers ensures that debates which ought to happen out in the open take place privately between a few chums.

By contrast, the case for constitutional reform is unavoidably ideological. We cannot pretend it is a thoroughly pragmatic, common-sense thing. It is in fact the unfinished work of the Enlightenment, a political response to an unreformed and centralised state. It takes for granted that the more involved people are in big decisions, at least in giving their assent, the better. The caricature reformer is instinctively wary of power, just as the caricature New Labourite is hopelessly, dizzyingly in love with it.

And yet I think Blair himself, for all his centralist grabbing, is at least partly a genuine reformer. He is a man with his eye on history, who wants to change the country. He is already committed to political reforms of a scale which compares to the programmes of Gladstone or Lloyd George: his success or failure in that will partly determine his reputation. On the edge of the third millennium, Tony Blair is fated to be either a great reforming prime minister, or a failed one; just as I think he is fated to be Britain's first (at least mildly) environmentalist prime minister.

What we need is a great political offensive by the Prime Minister, to explain and sell his vision for a reformed, sleaze-free and more democratic nation. He needs to set out the more general case for reform - a new deal between the voters and government. He needs, in short, to define the terms by which he expects history to judge him.

And, I think, he needs to start doing it quite soon, certainly by the end of this year. Any later and the tone of his government will be set - a tone that seems, just at the moment, a little too clubby and centralised for its own longer-term good. From Scotland to Southend, and from the House of Lords to the parish council, this is a nation that needs a vigorous blast of political reform, not just a new party acting in the old way. Tony Blair has it in him to be a great leader. On the constitution, it is time for him to lead.

Comments