POLITICAL COMMENTARY : Has Labour got any serious answers on devolution ?

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The Independent Online
ONE of the most persistent myths of modern politics is that the last Labour government was "brought down by the Winter of Discontent". It was not. It was brought down by Scottish devolution. Though references to recent political history are now r egardedas unhelpful or even positively discourteous, particularly in the People's Party, it may be as well to recall what happened on that occasion.

On 1 March 1979 referendums on devolution were held in Scotland and Wales. The Welsh rejected it conclusively, by 956,000 to 243,000. The Scots supported it, by 1,231,000 to 1,154,000. However, that great Labour backbencher Mr George Cunningham, a Scot who sat for Islington South, had constructed a hurdle. To activate the Scotland Act 1978, and the consequential devolution of power to a Scottish Assembly, 40 per cent of the electorate were required to vote Yes. The proportion that did so was 32.9 per ce nt.

The Callaghan government was paralysed. All kinds of questionable solutions were proposed. Mr Michael Foot suggested that a Repeal Order should be laid before Parliament but that the House should then be invited to vote it down. Lord Callaghan was havingnone of it, partly because no one would be able to understand what the government was up to, and partly because he was not confident of having enough votes on his own side to sustain the manoeuvre. The Order repealing the Scotland Act was passed in Juneby the new Conservative government.

In any case, Jim was in a fatalistic mood. All passion was spent. The Scottish National Party withdrew its support, on which what was by then a minority government relied. The Scots put down a motion of censure. The Conservatives, in Lord Callaghan's ph r ase: "gratefully latched on" to it. The government lost by one vote, and on the next day Lord Callaghan asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament.

There is little doubt that an injustice was done to those Scots who wanted devolution. Mr Cunningham's parliamentary ingenuity notwithstanding, a majority is a majority. Mr Tony Blair is right to offer devolution to the Scots. Whether he is wise to promise - or whether the Scots will take to - a Parliament, with tax-raising powers of up to 3p in the pound, is more doubtful. We all know about the Presbyterian preacher describing with relish the torments of the damned, who are crying: "Lord,

Lord, we did'na ken." And the Lord looks down and, in his infinite mercy, says: "Well, ye ken noo."

But at least the Scots, like those souls in Hell so graphically described by the preacher, will have asked for it. My own fellow-countrymen have not. There is little real evidence of any significant shift of opinion in Wales since 1979. What has happened, rather, is that the quangos under the patronage of successive Welsh Secretaries have multiplied. Why should these bodies become more democratic simply because another layer of government is inserted between them and the Secretary of State? What, come to that, will be the function of the Welsh Secretary, and of the Scottish Secretary as well, under the new regime?

Last week saw Mr Gordon Brown energetically pedalling backwards over the English regional assemblies. It is hard to see why constitutional matters should be regarded as the proper province of the Shadow Chancellor. What is Mr Jack Straw for, if not to g i ve us the benefit of his views on the future shape of the United Kingdom? But increasingly the Labour Party seems to be run as a Blair-Brown empire. Anyway, according to Mr Brown, regional assemblies will be set up as a consequence of popular demand, whi ch will be assessed in some manner yet to be specified. It seems great nonsense, put in - like the Welsh Assembly - to give the impression of fairness all round.

Fairness brings us to the West Lothian question, so called because Mr Tam Dalyell, now MP for Linlithgow, sat for West Lothian when he first raised it in the 1970s. The question is why Scottish MPs should continue to legislate on, say, health and education in England, while English MPs, under a devolved system, cannot legislate on the same matters in Scotland. The logical answer is that when such topics are being discussed, Scottish MPs should kindly leave the stage. This is thought to be too harsh. A diminution of Scottish representation is the preferred solution.

Scotland, however, is - owing to the complicated directions under which the Boundary Commissioners work - already over represented at Westminster, quite irrespective of whether a Scottish Assembly or Parliament is in existence. The same applies to Wales.In Scotland, the average electorate of a constituency is 54,000; in Wales, 58,000; in Northern Ireland, 66,000; and, in England, 69,000.

Northern Ireland's representation was increased to 17 by Lord Callaghan, ostensibly to compensate for the loss of Stormont in 1972 but in reality to buy the votes of Northern Irish MPs. Through the operation of a fearful symmetry, Lord (then Mr Gerry) Fitt voted against the government in the 1979 vote of censure, so bringing it down, precisely because he was angry about this increase in the number of Northern Ireland members. He believed that it would benefit the Unionists. Truly, God is no t mocked (Galatians 6. 7). If Northern Ireland's constitutional arrangements are changed yet again, as they will be at some stage, it will be difficult to maintain a case for retaining its present representation.

Mr Blair and the Scottish spokesman, Mr George Robertson, go about pretending that the West Lothian question does not exist. The present Labour argument is: "So what?" This is understandable enough, even if it is not particularly creditable. The higher the representation of Scotland and Wales, the greater the probability of a Labour victory at an election. What is not true, however, is what is often asserted: that since 1945 Labour has never won a majority in England alone. In fact Labour had a majority in 1966 and, narrowly, in October 1974 but not in 1964 or in February 1974.

All this is not to say that history is going to repeat itself. It rarely does, in an exact form. It is unlikely to do so where Scottish devolution is concerned - not least because the Blair government, if one comes about, proposes to get the matter out of the way in its first year. It will not be as easy as it looks. Already, in the past week, we have been able to observe the party's vague policy on English regional government coming apart before our very eyes.

It is not an isolated case. Can anyone now put his hand on his heart and say, after the comings and goings of the past few weeks, that he fully understands what Labour's education policy is? In a way, this is a tribute to Mr Blair. For the first time in over 30 years, Labour is being taken seriously as the next party of government. Its policies are being scrutinised accordingly. That scrutiny will become more intense - and more unfair - as the election approaches. Mr Blair will have to wade through muchmuddier waters before he finally reaches the bank.