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Who cares about 1.2 million irate Scots?

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.