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The pressure just to leave things be;Opinion

Everyone is familiar with a pre-election period in which the processes of government are put on hold. We are about to enter a similar but longer lasting threat of inactivity - a pre-parliamentary period. The pressure to delay decisions until the Scottish parliament is underway in 2000 comes from two directions.

One is Westminster where, among English MPs there is no enthusiasm for further legislation on matters which will be devolved to Edinburgh or Cardiff. On the Labour side there must be some frustration that a prime period for introducing reforms that will become more difficult as the next election approaches is being taken up with the Scotland Bill. There will certainly be little further Scottish legislation in the next two parliamentary sessions.

The other procrastinators are home-bred. They are happy to use the imminence of the Scottish parliament to kick difficult decisions into touch. It is a tactic which will be increasingly used by those with a genuine case as by those who prefer to shirk unpopular confrontation with local communities.

The closure of rural schools is becoming a classic example, and it depends on your position whether you regard the calls for delay as skilful tactics or pusillanimity. Liberal Democrat MPs with rural schools under threat played the new parliament card at their conference last weekend. Their assumption that MSPs will want or be able to devote resources to small schools is questionable, but campaigners in Argyll and Highland would be happy for at least a two-year respite. By contrast, the leader of the party's group on Dumfries and Galloway council voiced the same concerns as has the convener of Argyll following his members' decision to stay their hand: other schools will suffer if savings are not made.

The temptation to leave decisions to the new parliament revives memories of the dilatoriness accompanying local government reorganisation. Some of the financial problems of the single-tier authorities were inherited from their regional and district predecessors, and delay had often made things worse. Strathclyde, for example, simply gave up the struggle to tackle school overcapacity.

Pre-election periods in this country are relatively short, unlike the United States. A pre-parliamentary hiatus, however, would last up to two years. The campaign for the May 7 elections next year is now starting, but the MSPs will have no power until 2000.

Let us assume a Labour-led administration (pace some recent SNP-boosting opinion polls). It would no sooner be introducing a legislative programme than the call would go out for caution in the run-up to the next Westminster elections.

Absence of government initiative might be welcome, especially in schools. But there is a difference between self-restraint (on the part of HMI as much as of politicians) and failure of will.

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