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Blueprints aside, there is no demand for federalism

There are some funny little fictions doing the rounds.

One involves the belief that, once upon a time, Labour granted devolution to Scotland. That's not how it happened.

The Scottish party had to be dragged, kicking and sometimes screaming, towards a contemplation of the famous slippery slope to perdition. While the Scottish National Party struggled to work out the difference between a long game and a short game, Labour wasn't keen. That would be saying the least of it.

In the present, you might be made to believe that the same party enacted a settled will, that democracy was served from the start by its tribunes. A few thought so. Most others in Labour just asked themselves whether the tedious home rule stuff would settle the hash of the SNP.

We got our Holyrood parliament, in large part, because a great many ordinary people wouldn't shut up about it. To put things no higher, Labour did not rush to respond to those folk. When these days we find ourselves knee-deep in promises of federalism, a few historical details are worth bearing in mind. We got what we have because, in essence, we insisted.

That marks an important difference. The Tory discovery of federalism after so many decades is a comedy to treasure. When Lord Adonis produces a neat blueprint for concessions to the counties, shires and great cities of England, on the other hand, something important is overlooked: have the people desired or demanded these things?

Neal Ascherson's letter in these pages was to the point. The difficulty with this year's federal scheme is not asymmetry, or managing matters better than (God knows) Lord Prescott. It's fundamental: the people of England do not think of their country or their world as people here might think. To our south, they feel no need for those upheavals. So why rearrange their country because the Scots are (once again) raising a racket?

It goes to the heart of the problem of Britain. Lord Adonis might desire to encourage counterweights to London. That makes sense. A discontentment with England's metropolis is now both general and profound. Jobs and "growth" and the folding stuff are being sucked from every corner of these islands and exported - a fact too often overlooked - to prop up the balance sheets of transnationals. But none of that has much to do with the "conceding" of more government to the English north.

Some people who live beyond the latest dreams of high-speed rail could do with more democracy: that's not disputed. Whether they fancy occupying George Osborne's notion of a vast city-state is less obvious. But even those who talk of parliaments across England seem to me - and seem by every measure - to be in a minority.

They do not think in the terms that forced the agitation for a Scottish Parliament. They do not see themselves or their country in such a way. Hence a basic problem: why should people who understand their democracy in terms of Westminster be federalised? Merely to render the Scots content?

I doubt that would work. I am also certain that it would not be right. It might be fun to rearrange the constitutional furniture, but legitimacy does not derive from clever peers - or the rest of us - deciding how the world should seem. Scotland's issues are Scottish: the bare facts are in the language. It is not in the gift of Labour or the Tory Party to attempt to cause people to pretend otherwise.

Were I in certain parts of England, I would probably be demanding my parliament. I would probably be saying that what's good enough for the Scots should certainly be good enough for anyone. I might dust down federal schemes from across the world and ask why there could be an obstacle to a sensible reform of the weary old British state. But I might still wonder about the politicians who have seemed happy enough, for long enough, with that state.

Rearranging the furniture doesn't make life more comfortable, necessarily. Equally, throwing out the furniture isn't always popular. Sometimes it is better to think instead about the household that has acquired all the stuff for which no one much cares. Britain is defined by its bric a brac.

For all that, Lord Adonis has come up with quite a plan. He and Ed Miliband dream of English "economic powerhouses". Labour would concede business rates income - but "revenue neutral" - to help matters along. A figure of £30 billion for transport, jobs and housing has been mentioned. Collaboration between local authorities is the best, newest game in town.

Lord Adonis feels obliged to admit, of course, that Mr Osborne has covered a lot of this ground, as has Lord Heseltine. After a time, these blueprints can seem a little similar. Devolution has become common language these days. But here's a thought: how would a British government react if any of these grand schemes came to fruition, and if London began to suffer?

That's the nature of power. It touches on the old tales of Scottish Labour and home rule. Who truly ever gives up power and control if they can see an alternative? Who enters government in order to dismantle the machinery of government? Why would you do such a thing? Why, in that event, would you pretend to do such a thing?

Scottish Labour folk got agitated, once upon a time, over the phrase "home rule". Devolution was the preferred, anodyne alternative. It seemed to carry no sense of threat. "Federalism" these days has the same whiff of happy compromise. The problem remains, as Mr Ascherson observed, that the majority of English folk have not the slightest interest in the topic.

It stands as one reason why we are arguing over the possibility of independence. We take a different view. We have another perspective. Because that is so, we will vote in a referendum. There is no urge, that I can see, to be placated. I'm fairly sure that the workings of my government is not a matter of consuming importance to the people of Leeds. Those who would "grant" devolution and "powers" seem not to grasp a simple point.

A federalist fix won't hold, whether from Labour, the Tories, or those old past masters, the Liberal Democrats. The old myth of muddling through, the habit of improvising a democracy sufficient to the day, is no longer adequate. I look forward to the people of Leeds making a great deal of fuss over the fact.

For now, they get Lord Adonis. One small by-product of home rule is that deep thinkers of that stripe don't often stray over the border to tell us how much better off we could be if we took another bet on the next leader. Attempts to cajole the Scots have become intense in the last couple of months, but it might be that we have seen the old shell games too often.

I'd offer that as a tip to my friends in the south if local democracy takes their fancy. Whatever the opening bid happens to be, tell them it's not enough. The resulting panic is deeply, permanently satisfying.

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Local government

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