A cry of 'Gerrymander]' as Strathclyde is axed

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 17 July 1993 23:02

JOHN MAJOR called it a 'monstrosity'. Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, spoke of 'the baleful shadow of socialism that stretches across the central belt of Scotland'. Strathclyde Region, the biggest and most powerful unit of local government surviving in the British Isles, is now doomed.

'Gerrymander]' was the yell that burst from the other parties when they read the Government's plan for reorganising local government in Scotland. It is fair comment. The Tories, running fourth in Scottish opinion polls, are manoeuvring clumsily to enhance what local power they hold. The plan is to replace the two-tier system of region and district, which has existed since 1975, with a single tier of all-purpose authorities. It was a simpler system than the English one, and, after a rocky start, has been working with growing efficiency. The rule of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' leaves only one plausible explanation for this otherwise mystifying upheaval, which is party advantage.

The Glasgow middle-class dormitory town of Helensburgh, for example, is being taken out of Dumbarton and added to Argyll and Bute. If the new parliamentary boundaries follow local demarcations, as they probably will, this gives the Tories a chance of recapturing Argyll from the Liberal Democrats. Eastwood, a Tory stronghold, will be taken out of Labour-dominated Glasgow. Kyle and Carrick, another Tory safe haven, is to be removed from the rest of Ayrshire. And so on: a huge, unnecessary and expensive dislocation for the sake of petty and, in the end, marginal gains.

But the abolition of Strathclyde raises deeper issues: about the whole political future of Scotland, about Britain's compatibility with Europe, about how conurbations relate to their hinterlands. Strathclyde may not be a 'monstrosity', but it is a monster. It contains 2.3 million people: 45 per cent of the whole Scottish population. Its budget this year is pounds 2.5bn. It covers 5,300 square miles: Glasgow and the Clyde conurbation, plus rural Ayrshire, most of the Inner Hebrides and landward Argyll. It employs 85,000 people.

It is hard to remember that Strathclyde was a Tory invention, or that sections of the Labour Party resisted on the grounds that it was too big. Strathclyde, always Labour-controlled, became synonymous with Labour's power in the west of Scotland: a huge engine of planning, investment and wealth redistribution which ran education, water, transport, police, fire services and planning. It set out to level up the standard of services between deprived inner Glasgow, rich burghs like Ayr or Helensburgh, distant crofting islands like Coll or Tiree and rural areas like mid-Argyll which had ambled along on the low-rates, low-standards principle for generations.

Strathclyde, in nearly 20 years, acquired its great figures. I remember the Rev Geoff Shaw, that impassioned minister from the Gorbals who was Strathclyde's first convener (council chairman). Unable to distance himself from the suffering and injustice he confronted, Shaw worked himself to death in 1978; had he lived, and had Scottish devolution gone through in 1979, he would almost certainly have been the first premier of a self-governing Scotland. He worked with Dick Stewart, leader of the Labour group, a lean ex- miner who was master of the smoke- filled room and the deadly retort.

After Stewart came Charles Gray, a railway worker, responsible for bringing Strathclyde into the European regional mainstream, building contacts and co-operation all over the Continent (east as well as west) and setting up the Strathclyde 'embassy' in Brussels. The most famous official was Sir Robert Calderwood, a superb and touchy chief executive, the sort of man who would stride out of a banquet if he was not placed at the top table.

It was a one-party state, and it had its horror stories. But the members of the regional Labour group never wrestled in mud like their comrades in Glasgow District Council. They were, and are, proud of their achievements - some of which are for keeps. Inequalities between industrial areas and the wealthier periphery were reduced. Glasgow and Lanarkshire no longer have too few teachers while Dumbarton has too many. Argyll's awful roads and neglected school buildings were improved out of recognition - at the cost of higher rates and poll taxes. They built up a Passenger Transport Executive - road, peri-urban rail and the modernised 'Clockwork Orange' Glasgow underground - admired throughout Britain. They spent heavily and wisely on culture, preparing the way for Glasgow's revival of self-confidence as 1990 European City of Culture.

But there has always been a down- side. For many of its inhabitants, Strathclyde stayed remote. A Highland county like Argyll was never going to be reconciled to a Labour government from Glasgow. Standards for schools or water or home help were urban, not Highland standards. The poll tax fiasco devastated the reputations of all the regions, especially Labour ones like Strathclyde which condemned the tax but harvested odium for trying to collect it.

Strathclyde was too big for Scotland. At the 1979 referendum on devolution, a large number - maybe a decisive number - of pro-devolution voters voted No or stayed away from the poll because they feared it would mean 'government by Strathclyde councillors'. It has always been recognised that Strathclyde will have to be broken up, and single-tier authorities brought in, if Scotland does acquire its own parliament.

But was Strathclyde also too big for the present, centrally-governed United Kingdom? Apart from the Argyll problem, I believe that Strathclyde was just right: slightly below the average population of a successful European Community region, with a good balance between town and country, industry and agriculture. Its scale meant that it fitted naturally into the texture of European region-based development, a game which most other British authorities were too small and weak to play. Strathclyde's disappearance is a defeat for the European cause in Britain.

The Tories have gained exactly what they gained by abolishing the GLC and the metropolitan counties. They have destroyed a visible centre of rival political power, and brought Britain closer to a one-party state. John Major has shown that the most autocratic elements of Margaret Thatcher's reign are still in his programme. If Strathclyde fits into a unitary Britain but not into a devolved one, then to abolish the region but keep Britain a centralised state is the worst of all solutions.

The result is simply to strengthen the case for a Scottish parliament. First, because the objection of 'too many tiers of government' (an old Tory point) is now removed. Second, because a democracy which consists only of small district councils and Parliament in London is an idiocy - as if modern cities could exist without some higher authority to co-ordinate the needs of town and periphery. That higher authority can now only be a parliament in Edinburgh.

Lastly, nobody (as usual) asked the Scots if they wanted their regions abolished. The evidence is that they do not, and sharply resent this disruption imposed by a government they did not vote for. At a moment when 80 per cent of Scots say they want Home Rule or full independence, axing Strathclyde is also hacking into the props that hold up the United Kingdom.

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