Think again about England

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That master of unconscious irony, the Scottish Secretary Ian Lang, was at it again yesterday. "What they [Labour] are doing is seeking to appease nationalism and they are prepared to damage and destroy a constitution which has stood us in good ste ad forcenturies," he told the BBC. Coming from the party of Portillo, quangos, overweening executive power and the slow killing of local government, this was cant mined from a rich vein.

And yet, and yet ... why is it that Labour's thinking on devolution causes a flutter of unease even in those most disenchanted with the way that Britain is governed? It isn't the party's proposals for Scotland that are the problem; that nation's demands f o r greater autonomy cannot be resisted any longer without testing to breaking point Scottish consent to the Union. What is suggested for Wales seems sensible too.

The problem is Labour's plans for England. The party is still formally committed to regional government. Publicly, it continues to advocate that bodies should be set up to oversee the regional economies and to fulfil a co-ordinative function. The model used is always the Lander system in Germany.

Confidence in these proposals is ebbing fast. Not long ago Labour would have boldly pronounced about the new bodies and their powers. But yesterday morning Gordon Brown was in fast retreat, suggesting that what might be appropriate in one place might notdo for another. And by the afternoon Labour had revised its plans even further. There were private hints that the whole thing might amount to no more than discovering which existing local authority fancied taking over which quango.

Labour is right to backtrack. The last thing people in England want is the imposition of another tier of government run by another lot of party politicians. History is working in quite the opposite direction. People don't want more government, they want

less. Newt Gingrich is not the only symptom, the signs are everywhere. That is why Labour's constitutional proposals have singularly failed to strike any kind of popular chord. In its proposals and rhetoric Labour addresses the desire for more democracy,but never for less government.

So try this, Gordon. First admit openly that your early proposals on English devolution belong to an earlier era and are now dead. Then outline the principles that should govern the relationship between any elected body and its electors: lean government,effective democracy, regular accountability, the right of redress and full disclosure. Only then launch a proper debate with the people of Britain about which mechanisms, from referendums to local citizen's charters, would best deliver these principles.Then act.

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