It's chaos, but it's real devolution

Don't tell anyone, but I have heard a good speech by Frank Dobson. Almost certainly you won't have heard it, because he delivered the uplifting words in the House of Commons. In front of a handful of MPs, Dobson managed to sound both practical and visionary as he outlined his thoughts on London.

I happened to catch his speech as I was lying at home on the sofa with a soaring temperature. At one point I became almost feverish with excitement. Dobson, the most reluctant of the mayoral candidates, was envisaging how people in the capital city might be able to move around it with a degree of ease: "Many people who live in one part of outer London work in another part of outer London, and they find it almost impossible to get to work by public transport. I believe, therefore, that we need to have something like an outer Circle Line, which will probably be a surface railway. Some of the line could be provided fairly quickly - by connecting parts of the current system . . . In the long run - I admit that I am now engaged in describing only a wish-list, rather than firm plans - there is scope in London for an outer, outer Circle Line, joining up the outer boroughs, Heathrow and Channel Tunnel connections and increasing people's capacity to reach Gatwick and Stansted . . ."

Let us have more such wish-lists. If this was the wish-list of a reluctant candidate, what would one be like from an enthusiast? Dobson's speech fizzed with ideas. For a moment - perhaps it was the flu - I forgot about the mayoral soap opera in which Dobson plays a leading role. As a member of the Dobson entourage put it to me later: "Behind the farce, at least the future of London is centre stage again." He is right. When power is devolved, ideas and policies spring up. Under the previous, centralising Conservative regime, the Underground crumbled without anyone noticing (except the far too tolerant travellers). Now the fate of the Tube and London's wider problems are front-page news virtually every day.

That is why it is worth clinging on to moments such as the Dobson speech. On the surface, devolution has been a catastrophic disaster. Indeed, the longer the mayoral soap opera goes on, and there are many more twists to come, the more it will rebound on the government, even if it is the Conservatives who are providing most of the jokes. Only last week the Sun ran a big story under the headline "£600 million on Blair's windbags". The great Labour-supporting newspaper had calculated how much it was costing the taxpayer to support the various devolved bodies. It concluded - surprise, surprise - that Tony Blair was wasting our money.

There is already much ammunition to feed the Sun's case and not, by any means, just from London. In Scotland, virtually unreported in England, large cracks are beginning to appear in Donald Dewar's regime. More depressing, some of the cracks relate to intrigue and manoeuvring reminiscent of Labour's early months in power at Westminster. Dewar has just sacked one of his senior advisers, a Blairite who had good relations with the Lib Dems. Apparently, the senior Blairite was spinning out of control in his dealings with the media, alienating other senior figures who also wished to pull the strings from behind the scenes. The Scottish newspapers have responded to the dismissal by tearing into Dewar, a sport they seem increasingly to enjoy.

The politics of devolution in Scotland are mature and harmonious compared with Wales, where the Blairites have never been forgiven for fixing the party's internal election in favour of Alun Michael. Senior Labour figures in Wales tell me that the party will never recover and that Plaid Cymru will be on the rampage at the next general election.

At least Scotland and Wales have managed to elect some representatives. Sometimes it seems Londoners will never get the chance. Here the Conservatives have commanded all the headlines, exposing a confused, incoherent national leadership and some bizarre party activists. William Hague began this contest by taking a "hands-off approach". As I argued at the time, Hague was trying to make the best of a weak position. Quite simply he was not strong enough to take on Thatcher, Major and the rest of Lord Archer's doting admirers. If he had been in greater command of his party he would have blocked the old rogue. In other words, he would have become a control freak, which is what all leaders instinctively want to be. Belatedly, and in an atmosphere of farce, Hague has become precisely that, much more so than Blair. First, the party leadership blocked Teresa Gorman, although she is a Conservative MP. Then, in effect, it imposed Steve Norris back into the contest, having thrown him to the unpredictable winds of local democracy when Archer pulled out.

In these early months of devolution, Blair is condemned for interfering too much, Hague for not interfering enough. Hague has since overcompensated by interfering all over the place. The experience of devolved power in Scotland and Wales suggests that some control from the centre is unavoidable. Political classes are not born overnight, and after decades of centralised rule, hundreds of impressive and charismatic representatives are unlikely to spring up from nowhere. At first, almost unavoidably, mediocre politicians from the party machines will dominate.

But remember the Dobson speech, and how London has functioned in a democratic vacuum since the mid-1980s. Let us not forget, also, that the introduction of a Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and a Northern Ireland Assembly was an unfulfilled aspiration of past Labour - and Conservative - governments. So far, devolution has been chaotic, farcical and uninspiring. It has also been the government's greatest achievement in 1999.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Now then, are we getting anywhere?