For the Union dead

Devolution in the United Kingdom

Vernon Bogdanor <em>Oxford University Press, 304pp, £8.99</em>

Devolution aspires to be all things to all men. In attempting to woo all it ends up winning none. Unionists do not like it; it starts to pull the Union apart. Nationalists do not like it; it is not the proper thing, namely self-government. Devolution is a compromise waiting to be cast aside, an accident waiting to happen, a question mark of a policy.

Vernon Bogdanor catalogues the many failures of past devolution in the United Kingdom, approaching it as a historian and political scientist. In the main he writes an informative and balanced book. Just occasionally there is an optimistic sub-plot, a whiff of opinion showing a triumph of hope over experience.

His conclusion is that "an alternative answer is possible" (other than a centralised state) - "that a society may be held together through what Gladstone called a 'recognition of the distinctive qualities of the separate parts of the great countries' ". The author believes that Gladstone's Home Rule proposals for Ireland could have worked. This is a strange judgement, not least because they didn't. There were three versions of Home Rule for Ireland from 1885 up to the first world war. All had deep flaws and none succeeded. Many Irish leaders had already decided that they wanted Home Rule, if at all, only as a stepping stone to full independence.

Vernon Bogdanor shows considerable erudition in setting out the differing types of federal, Home Rule and confederal structures that were used at different times and in different parts of the British empire. He has a soft spot for the methods used in Canada, Australia and South Africa, and wonders if they should have been adopted more comprehensively closer to home. He should remember the most obvious point: that these systems of devolution or federalism failed to keep the empire together. All those countries granted devolution ended up independent, with the sole exception of Northern Ireland, which never wanted devolution in the first place. It was forced on it by Westminster in a miscarried attempt to rid itself of the Irish problem.

Bogdanor is more impressive when describing and analysing than he is when expressing opinions. He offers a good account of how Ireland was lost to the Union. He explains the different ways in which Scotland and Wales came into the Union in the first place. He never seems to understand fully the passions that drive the wish for self-determination. That is why he thinks devolution can be an attractive third way, a stable state, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

Devolution is seldom stable. A devolved constitution is usually on the way to becoming a unitary state, or on the way to the dissolution of the empire. The British colonies became dominions with their own parliaments and governor generals before becoming independent. Irish Home Rule campaigns predated full independence. Scottish Nationalists will use the Scottish Parliament to press endlessly for separation. Quebecois separatists have never given up, and have come close to turning their devolution into independence.

Bogdanor is an enthusiast for proportional representation, as he has become an admirer of Gladstone after his move to the Liberals from the Conservatives. He tells us that proportional representation in Ulster may have averted the troubles if they had persevered with it. I doubt it. Nationalists did not want a fairer Ulster; they wanted a united Ireland.

The book does lapse occasionally. We are told that the Welsh Assembly has 40 constituency seats and 20 list seats: a ratio of 60:40. The professor is clearly in need of Labour's improved teaching of mental arithmetic. I learn that as Welsh secretary I was following a free-market agenda which was unpopular in Wales. It is clear that the professor read none of my press releases, and knew nothing of the policies I followed.

I used the Welsh Office to adapt and adopt those policies from England that I thought made sense, and to block those I thought damaging. I refused to close hospitals in Wales in the way we were doing in England. I cancelled road schemes through environmentally sensitive areas, concentrating instead on two major east-west routes and protecting the rest of the country. I launched the policy of popular schools, allowing money for successful schools to expand, which is now being taken up nationwide by the Labour government. These policies followed extensive travelling, meeting people, listening to their problems. The Welsh Office was small enough to be able to offer a personal service to MPs, and to local authorities who wanted meetings to put their case. There was no need for another body between local and national government.

A good case can be made for the United Kingdom as a unitary state. By all means delegate more to local government; by all means think of ways of restoring more pride, influence and power to good local government; but do not split the country with new and unneeded regional administration. Labour would have been better advised to have held a referendum on independence for Scotland or for Wales, and won it for the Union when they could.

I think the United Kingdom is worth preserving. Conservatives will work within the new structure to make the continuing case for the Union, in the knowledge that our task will now be harder. No one has solved the problem of the government of England, which does not want elected regional parliaments. Devolution will not be some magic solution to keep the kingdom together. Rather, Labour is in danger of presiding over the death of Britain.

John Redwood is a former secretary of state for Wales. His "The Death of Britain" (Macmillan, £9.99) is published in May

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special