Blair counts the counties out

The creation of new regional assemblies - toothless, partially unelected bodies that will usurp exis

None of our failings disappoints our Prime Minister as much as our cynicism. It is this vice, he feels, that enables mere spin and sleaze to distract us from his wondrous achievements. What, though, if cynicism were found to pervade the Blair regime itself - not just presentation and patronage, but the essence of policy-making? We are about to find out.

The government's proposal to create regional assemblies for England was cynical enough to start off with. Constitutional propriety was always going to be sacrificed to party advantage. However, the white paper detailing the scheme, to be published shortly, will plumb depths of cynicism as yet undreamt of.

The assemblies plan was never about improving England's governance. It was cooked up to address the constitutional chaos created by Scottish devolution, itself primarily an attempt to counter the nationalist threat to Labour's vote. This has left England governed partly by MPs elected in what has become, for domestic purposes, another country. The problem could have been solved by federalising the UK, with England, Wales and Northern Ireland being given parliaments of the same status as Scotland's. However, Labour leaders feared that an English parliament might end up with an inbuilt Tory majority - an unthinkable prospect. England would therefore have to remain under UK rule, so that a reserve army of Labour MPs from the reliable Celtic fringe could out-vote native Tories on English matters whenever necessary. In case the English asked why they were being deliberately denied democracy, they would be thrown a sop - directly elected regional assemblies.

From the outset, the scheme looked dodgy. Some countries divide fairly easily into regions, but not England. No mighty river or range of snow-capped peaks divides the north from the south, still less the Midlands from anywhere else. On the map, the south-west looks reasonably discrete, but even there, Cornishpersons want as little to do with Devonians as possible.

Still, since 1994, England has been arbitrarily chopped up into nine zones for the delivery of central government services. One of the boundaries happens to go straight through Sheffield's travel-to-work area. But what the hell: Labour's constitutional architects have decided that these zones will suit their purpose as well as any. So, the white paper will reveal, Swindon is to be exported to the south-west, Banbury's Midlanders will become south-easterners, and homely Hemel Hempsteaders are to be reborn as denizens of the mysterious east.

Some of the new regions will be so meaningless that even Labour's commissars have balked at imposing them everywhere. An assembly will be set up only where a majority approves it in a regional referendum. If, as a result, some regions end up with assemblies while others do not, a new asymmetry will be created, compounding the original constitutional imbalance that the scheme is supposed to be rectifying. People in English regions that do not have assemblies will have their affairs partly determined by MPs from regions that do, as well as by Celtic MPs.

Not that the new assemblies will be assuming Westminster's role within their regions. Because the underlying objective of the whole scheme is to keep real power in London, few Whitehall functions are to be transferred. The shiny new assemblies cannot, however, be left completely toothless, lest the English notice. So the white paper will propose that powers for the new assemblies should be taken from local authorities. Where will that leave the then denuded councils? The unitary authorities that run most of England's conurbations will just have to get used to rival bodies treading on their toes. But where there are both counties and districts, the counties will simply be abolished.

The justification provided will be that there would otherwise be "over-government". This is true enough. Where county, district and parish councils all exist already, regional authorities would become the sixth administrative tier, after Westminster and Europe. Yet the cynicism implicit in the abolition of the shires is breathtaking. It is not just that, only three months ago, the government promised parliament that regionalisation would pose no threat to county councils. Nor is it simply that the assemblies are being justified on the grounds that they will bring decision-making closer to the people. Nor is it even that the counties are the Tories' last redoubt (they won 17 in last year's local elections), while regional assemblies will be mostly Labour-dominated.

What is most cynical is that Tony Blair claims to be concerned about the voters' disengagement from politics, as evidenced by falling turnout, a problem even worse at local, than at general, elections. Experience shows that institutions imbued with authority by age and tradition command more respect than new ones. The shires have a thousand years of history behind them; Edward Heath's "improvements" to them met such unrelenting protest that they had to be unravelled. Now counties are to be discarded completely, just to help Labour out of a jam.

You want more? These exciting new, directly elected assemblies are not, it turns out, to be quite as directly elected as we had been led to believe. Feeble though the new bodies will be, they would still, if they were to be armed with full democratic legitimacy, pose more of a threat to the centre than Labour's control freaks can allow.

The chosen method of castrating them will appeal to those who admire the government's plan for "reforming" the Lords. Regional assemblies are now, apparently, to include a substantial number of appointed "community representatives", who will sit alongside directly elected members and exercise full voting powers. This arrangement will enable the assemblies to benefit from wisdom and experience they might otherwise be denied. Or, to put it another way, clapped-out trade union hacks will block anything No 10 tells them to.

Unfortunately, the prospect of regional devolution has yet to enrapture the English, even in unadulterated form. A British Social Attitudes survey found just 15 per cent support for the principle. A "constitutional convention" held in Chester last year to drum up support for a north-western assembly attracted just one genuine member of the public, and he was unpersuaded. Many of the English apparently take the view that regional government would be just another gravy train for low-grade, junketing politicians. Others ask why recognition of Scotland's nationhood has to trigger the dismemberment of their own nation. So a secretive and vaguely sinister Labour campaign, spearheaded for some reason by Church of England bishops, is busily trying to rectify public opinion.

As a final act of cynicism, the Prime Minister has distanced himself from the whole sorry scheme by making its implementation the only known responsibility of his forlorn deputy, John Prescott. So the man once seen as the government's conscience will preside over what is perhaps its cheapest shot so far. Blair tells us he's a pretty straight kind of a guy. Thank God we aren't ruled by a man as cynical as we are.

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