Who cares about 1.2 million irate Scots?

Related Topics
HERE IS a story about culture and pride and democracy, about local government and the state, about money and muck. Here, first of all, is a story about water.

As is well known, water and Scotland enjoy a relationship of particular intimacy: the former not only surrounds, divides, cascades upon, permeates and adorns the latter, it has a special political meaning there, too. Water has been a symbol of social progress in Scotland ever since Glasgow City Corporation became the first city to bring a fresh rural supply to its citizens in 1859. The Loch Katrine project, opened by Queen Victoria, helped to end the Glasgow of private water companies and cholera epidemics.

More than 130 years later a Conservative government nodded to that watery spirit, by accepting that opposition to privatising Scottish water was too great to be resisted. Instead, water would pass from the control of elected councils to three water boards appointed by the Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang.

But even that outraged the leviathan of local government, Strathclyde Regional Council, which, with 1.7 million voters, is the biggest council in Britain. It is due to be demolished in a local government reorganisation now before Parliament, which will shear off the top tier of Scotland's local government, creating a single-tier system of 30-odd new councils. Their borders have been decided privately by ministers, leading to Opposition accusations of gerrymandering.

Strathclyde, though, is going down fighting. The proposals seemed a death sentence not only for a council which spends 40 per cent of its capital budget on water, but also for a prized tradition of civic socialism. Political pride was involved and Strathclyde spent pounds 600,000 on a postal ballot which simply asked: 'Do you agree with the Government's proposals for water and sewerage?' The response rate was 71.5 per cent - higher than for the 1979 referendum on Scottish home rule. It was the biggest such exercise in Britain since then and 97.2 per cent of those who responded, 1.19 million people, voted against the proposed changes. Big news or what?

What, says the Government. John Major accused Strathclyde of squandering money and Mr Lang said the campaign misrepresented the Government's proposals. The result will be ignored. Ministers argue that their proposed councils are too small to run water and sewerage, and that the system of unelected boards will help to bring in private funds for the pounds 5bn investment programme which they reckon is needed to bring Scottish water up to EU standards over the next 15 years.

The ministers have a point. Whatever happened when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Scottish local government recently has not had an unblemished record of success. The proposed boards probably would be more efficient and, given the huge cost of improving water quality, injections of private sector cash would be handy. Those are serious arguments that need dealing with. The trouble is, they ought to follow democratic assent, not replace it. It is always dangerous to respond to a question about politics with an answer about efficiency.

If Strathclyde is culpable in wasting money on a referendum, it is because Strathclyde ought to have known from the start that the Government wouldn't pay a blind bit of notice. Ministers already know their policies are unpopular in Scotland. Recent polls have given the Conservatives 13-14 per cent support: the water vote was partly an anti-Tory spasm. But if ministers have shrugged off Scottish election results, and opinion polls, and demonstrations, and numerous other stunts and wheezes big and small, why should anyone expect them to bother about 1.2 million irate Scottish water-users?

The Scottish constitutional struggle has been going on for as long as the full franchise. But even if we put Scottish home rule to one side, it is worth standing back from the routine mutual contempt shown by central and local government, and having a good gape; it is something worth not getting accustomed to.

Local authorities, with little control over their own budgets and priorities, even their own future, now regularly blame their own failures on central government. As they do, the distinction between bad councils and good ones gets harder to spot. Meanwhile, Whitehall regards local power as essentially illegitimate: Mr Major's contemptuous response to the Strathclyde poll on Tuesday was the ancient voice of central authority slapping down the pretensions of uppity locals.

It is acceptable to blame local politicians and, increasingly, replace them by appointees. So London shuns the council; and the council blames London. Posturing drowns out conversation. Buck-passing elbows out deal-making. If one were trying to devise a method for producing irresponsible local government and insensitive central government, this one would be hard to beat.

In this case, the reasonable compromise of big-scale water authorities under the control of elected councillors, for which Labour will argue in a Commons committee today, has no hope. That means, too, that the 'efficient' new boards will not survive a Labour government; further strife is built into the system.

It is hardly a new situation. The historian T C Smout, writing about the failures of Victorian legislation on sanitation and housing during the time of the Loch Katrine project, blamed them on 'the laziness of London administrations in dealing with Scottish problems and, equally, the resentment of Scottish local authorities at being ordered about by central government . . .' Those who regard political reform in Britain as an airy-fairy project, far removed from the mundane realities, should think again. Scottish water is, after all, about as mundane as you get.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform