Is it all more trouble than it's worth?

Kirsty Milne finds Scots and Welsh asking if devolution just means more mediocrity

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In Llandeilo, a Carmarthenshire town where cream and smoke-blue houses stack up above the river Towy, an elderly man in a flat cap is inspecting vegetables at the weekly market. He mutters an inquiry. "Welsh? Welsh? Yes, they're all Welsh," says the stallholder, a red dragon on his sweatshirt. "No," says the old man irritably. "What I said is, are they any good?"

As devolution gets closer and closer, that question gets bigger and bigger. It may be Scots, it may be Welsh, but is it any good? Will the new parliament and assembly be places where politicians try to make a difference, or turgid talking shops where time-servers parade their mediocrity?

There are people repining at this very minute: government advisers and ministers who believe that devolution is more trouble than it's worth. Think of the strain it has put on the Labour Party, fraying the coalition that brought Tony Blair to victory. In Scotland, Dennis Canavan looks likely to win as a martyred independent candidate in Falkirk West. In Wales, where the party machine whirred so assiduously to stop Rhodri Morgan, Morgan may yet be first minister. Nothing has done more to highlight new Labour's centralising tendencies than the attempt to decentralise.

Because of the persistent and genuine ambivalence about devolution in its ranks, Labour has failed to come up with truly distinctive manifestos for Scotland and Wales. The question "What is the first thing you would do in the Scottish Parliament?" is the one that most discomforted Donald Dewar - and indeed Alex Salmond - in a live debate.

Without a strong political agenda, both the parliament and the assembly could end up being run by civil servants. Blair might prefer it that way. Scottish Office officials have put a few draft bills tidily by in a drawer. In the absence of a firm steer from Dewar, or any other first minister, MSPs from urban constituencies could find themselves spending their early months debating land reform, much as English Labour MPs elected in 1997 found themselves snarled up in hours and hours of Scottish and Welsh devolution.

There is also a danger that the new breed of politicians will be infantilised by the experience of spending money handed out to them from London - money they will not have had to raise themselves. Securing £1.8 billion from the European Commission structural funds for West Wales and the Valleys is seen as an important christening gift for the assembly. But already a row is brewing over whether the required "match funding" will come out of the Welsh block grant, instead of being found by the Treasury.

These tussles will dog the early years of devolution. Civil servants are constructing elaborate machinery to deal with them, with the risk that simple contacts could start to feel like international diplomacy. After an early honeymoon, the centre of gravity will shift back to London, as UK ministers assert their power over "reserved matters" (see George Rosie, opposite page). This could lead to unpleasant confrontations, even between colleagues of the same party, since Welsh and Scottish representatives will have to go back and justify themselves to an audience in Cardiff or Edinburgh. As the former Welsh secretary Ron Davies said : "Let no one think that now the genie is out of the bottle he can be forced back."

The genie has even crossed into England. Recently, while no one was looking, the first meeting took place in Sunderland of a body calling itself the North-east Constitutional Convention. Chaired by the Bishop of Durham, it is modelled on the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, which spent six years devising a scheme for a devolved parliament. Campaigners hope it will persuade people of the need for an assembly, while reaching consensus on how it should be elected and funded, and what its powers should be. The convention will also suggest where regional assemblies might dovetail with Lords reform. But the government is insisting on evidence of clear demand before it will consider allowing an assembly to go ahead. "The last thing we would want is for regional devolution to rest on shaky and uncertain foundations," said the Europe minister and local MP Joyce Quin.

The situation is complicated by Blair's wish to see elected mayors, which threatens to collide head-on with John Prescott's enthusiasm for regional government. But ministers are understandably nervous of creating institutions that have no popular support. The Scotsman columnist Joyce Macmillan, who helped knock heads together in the Scottish Constitutional Convention on PR and gender balance, warned the Sunderland meeting that even people who voted "Yes" in the 1997 devolution referendum continue to feel alienated from the election of a Scottish parliament. In Wales, canvassers report that Tories who voted against the assembly are threatening to stay at home on 6 May.

Labour has assumed that it will be enough just to give people their parliament or assembly. But creating a sense of ownership could be devolution's toughest task.

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