War turns our colossus to putty

Prime-ministerial dominance and allegations about control-freakery marked years one and two of this government. Now we are witnessing, at home and abroad, the severe limitations of prime-ministerial power. Scotland and Wales look to new rulers, not all of them even from the mighty Labour Party. In Belgrade, Slobodan Milosevic stands defiant in spite of the hawkish Tony Blair. Suddenly Blair does not seem quite the dominant figure he appeared to be only weeks ago.

You would not believe it from some of the reporting and analysis of recent days but, as far as devolution was concerned, Blair really was ready to give up some power. The coverage reflects a curious view of Blair. Much of the time the media portrays him as a far-sighted colossus who bestrides the political stage. Over devolution, however, they depict him as a numbskull, the only person in the country unaware of what happens when power is devolved and elections are held under a form of proportional representation. Ever since Blair became leader, when he was unquestionably less enthusiastic about devolution than John Smith, there has been patronising talk of "unintended consequences" arising from the Scottish Parliament. Now reports suggest that the outcome of the elections have left him reeling: the Downing Street autocrat does not like this messy coalition business and is rarely off the phone to Donald Dewar.

Yet even my nine-year-old son knew that a coalition was likely in Scotland (in our sad household, he also thought the single "Sexual Healing" was entitled "Single Currency", although if you listen to the over-produced chorus, he has a point). Blair, too, knew that Labour would not win an overall majority in Scotland: the voting system made some form of power-sharing almost inevitable.

Blair enjoys symbolic acts of radicalism - but wants to avoid their practical consequences. Thus, he appointed Frank Field as social security minister to the sound of trumpets and sacked him when he dared to come up with proposals that bore some relation to his well-known views. He told Lord Jenkins to go away and find a new voting system. When he found one, though, it was kicked into the long grass and may never be found again.

No doubt Blair would have preferred to commission a review on the Efficacy of Coalitions in Scotland and Wales, to report back in 2003, rather than face the real thing.

But the practical consequences of devolution were unavoidable. Blair will be more relaxed than troubled about this. What is more, I suspect that his project with the Liberal Democrats in London is far from dead as a result.

The "project" is spoken of as a fully worked-out scheme, which it is not. Blair is experimenting as he goes along, leaving all options open.

Only recently, I suggested that if there were no referendum on electoral reform in this parliament (and there won't be), a new voting system would not be in place for the election after next. But Blair won't want to ditch the Liberal Democrats. At the last election, Paddy Ashdown's party was part of an unbeatable informal anti-Tory coalition. The Lib Dems performed well in the local elections last week, while the Tories made some progress. The electoral advantages of an informal alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour against a recovering Tory party were reinforced, rather than undermined.

Scotland and Wales will be test beds. Some of the Labour members of the Scottish Parliament may not be enthusiastic representatives of the new Labour model army, and the Welsh Labour group may still be reeling from centralised interference - but what did anyone expect? When power devolves, tensions arise.

The row over tuition fees is an early example. If Scotland does not have tuition fees, so be it. Even in poor old centralised England, there is considerable variation in council tax levels. This does not mean everyone rushes off to live in areas where bills are lowest. English students won't all head up to Scotland, either.

Other such challenging issues will come up. What will happen, for example, if the Scottish Parliament awards nurses a higher pay rise than in England and Wales? The answer is that a few English nurses will move to Scotland, but not many.

You cannot have devolution and expect no divergence in policy - or else there would be little point in having devolution. As this was obvious before a single vote was cast last Thursday, I doubt if ministers in London are too taken aback.

Neither devolution, nor the election results last week, challenge the Blair aura of invincibility. It is the war in the Balkans, infinitely less predictable, that threatens to do that.

In his recent Commons statement, Robin Cook condemned critics for failing to focus on the intentional acts of depravity taking place in Kosovo, rather than the unintentional ones committed by Nato. But the air strikes were supposed to prevent the very acts of depravity that Cook is now highlighting to justify the war. Michael Howard quite rightly reminded MPs that the original war aim was to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo. Instead, the catastrophe has become the reason for intensifying the war.

The government is improvising unconvincingly over the Balkans, while MPs (and not only Tory ones) are raising more questions about how the war can be won and what would constitute a victory. The answers remain far from clear.

Blair will have given some thought to the rather obvious consequences of devolution. He has known for years that he would be giving some power away. Did he appreciate that he never had the power in the first place to win a war convincingly in the Balkans?

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence