Britishness, as Robin Cook, has noticed, will be a key issue at the general election. Conservatives will claim that Britain can be held together only if government remains concentrated at the centre. The left, by contrast, believes that national unity will be better secured through dispersing power.

The debate began very long ago. In his Midlothian campaign of 1879, Gladstone declared: "If we can make arrangements under which Ireland, Scotland, Wales, portions of England, can deal with questions of local and special interest to themselves more efficiently than parliament now can, that, I say, will be the attainment of a great national good." Tony Blair's first administration has gone far towards the attainment of this "great national good" by devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In last December's Queen's Speech, Mr Blair promised that his government would complete the Gladstonian project. The unfinished business of devolution, dealing with "portions of England" - the regions - may form an important part of the programme of constitutional reform in Labour's next term.

The growth of regional government in England has been one of the unnoticed developments of recent years. In 1994 the Conservatives established government offices for the regions, integrating the regional offices of four government departments with common boundaries. "For the first time," John Gummer, the Conservative environment secretary told the Commons, "there will be coterminous regions for the departments."

Labour has gone much further, by establishing regional development agencies and encouraging the formation of regional chambers. Regional government has now become a reality everywhere in England. But it is top-heavy and unaccountable, comprising in each region an outpost of the centre, a quango and a voluntary grouping of the indirectly elected and appointed. There are no directly elected regional bodies at all, making an integrated approach to regional issues virtually impossible. Yet one important leitmotif of the Blair administration is joined-up government, linking together the concerns of different departments on such matters as social exclusion and the fight against crime. Devolution to Scotland and Wales allows for an integrated approach and renders the intermediate tier of government accountable. In the regions, by contrast, the structure is fragmented.

The obstacles to regional devolution, however, appear formidable. In England, it seems, there is little of that sense of regional identity upon which devolution must be founded. In the recent British Social Attitudes survey, just 15% favoured regional devolution in England. For the English, the regions seem little more than ghosts.

Moreover, regional devolution would almost certainly involve a further reorganisation of local government. In Scotland, Wales and London, devolution was inserted above single-tier systems of local government. But there is a two-tier system in at least part of every English region. To introduce regional government above two local authority tiers would yield over-government with a vengeance.

These obstacles, however, are not insuperable. The key to reform is to recognise that the strength of regional feeling varies in different parts of the country. In the south-east it is virtually non-existent. In the north, by contrast, it is a genuine political force, fuelled by fears that devolution to Scotland and Wales will handicap the regions in the quest for inward investment and funds from Europe. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that English devolution is championed most powerfully by ministers such as John Prescott and Richard Caborn, whose roots lie in the north.

In the north, the two-tier structure of local government has already been broken up by the introduction of new unitary authorities. In the south of England, the natural unit seems to be the county; in the north, it is becoming the region, since the counties have become pock-marked with unitary authorities.

It is the internal diversity of England that constitutes both the problem and the opportunity for regional devolution. The problem is that it makes a uniform solution impossible: the opportunity is that of introducing devolution piecemeal, as and when particular regions seek it. Only through piecemeal and asymmetrical devolution can regional government in England become a reality, fulfilling the Gladstonian project more than 120 years after it was first formulated.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University, and author of Devolution in the United Kingdom, published by OUP.

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