Election '97: British birthright and livelihoods at risk for Scots, warn top Tories

Ministers attack 'extreme left-wing nationalist' SNP
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Scotland's three Cabinet ministers yesterday sought to revive the party's fortunes north of the border with a defence of the Union and a blistering attack on their political opponents.

The people of Scotland were facing an unprecedented three pronged attack on their "livelihoods, their prosperity and their British birthright", Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, told a rally of Tory candidates in Glasgow. "At no general election this century has there been so much at risk for Scots."

However, with weekend polls showing Labour's support holding firm at almost 50 per cent, and one even suggesting the Tories could lose Eastwood, their safest seat in Scotland, the greatest risk continues to be to the survival of the Conservative Party itself in Scotland. All three of the Cabinet ministers at the rally, Mr Forsyth, Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, are on the endangered list, a fact which may in part explain the ferocity of their language.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was described as a blusterer and "bletherer" out of touch with Scottish colleagues: the Liberal Democrats as "Labour's dog-walkers" lusting to tax and spend; and the Scottish Nationalist Party as "extreme left-wing nationalist" - a party which supported devolution as a fast-track to dismemberment of the United Kingdom.

Mr Rifkind said Labour would crush Britain between "the hammer of a fragmented, devolved Britain and the anvil of an ever-centralising European Union".

Mr Forsyth insisted the tartan tax was on its way for Scotland under Labour despite Mr Blair's "implausible blustering" in Glasgow last Friday. "It represents the undemocratic and unjust principle of discriminatory rates of income tax within the UK - a dangerously separatist concept. Mr Forsyth dismissed the 129 members of the planned Scottish parliament as Mr Blair's "parishioners" but he at least agreed with the Labour leader that power would remain at Westminster.

"Scotland has a place at Westminster and Scotland will not give up its strong voice in return for a parish council that will impoverish our people," he said, winning a standing ovation from the candidates.

Some of the heaviest fire was directed at the Scottish Nationalists who will launch their manifesto today. Mr Forsyth said that far from the budget surplus predicted for Scotland by the SNP in "back-of-the -envelope" collations, a separatist government would inherit a deficit of at least pounds 6.4bn even with North Sea oil revenues.

"The terrifying fact is that Alex Salmond and his extreme left-wing nationalists are the ultimate beneficiaries of Labour's reckless devolution scheme which would end in the dissolution of the United Kingdom."

Mr Salmond dismissed Mr Forsyth's attacks, claiming the Secretary was "lashing out in all directions" as the Tories headed towards defeat.

The Liberal Democrats produced a paper by Jim Stevens of Strathclyde University's economics department claiming the cost of separation and the SNP's fiscal measures would be an increase of 22.3p on the standard rate.

More wounding for Mr Salmond was an attack on his "dull" leadership style by a party supporter on a radio phone-in. Paul Rosano from Edinburgh asked why he was "so unpassionate, unconvincing and uncharismatic".

"That's just me," Mr Salmond replied, adding that it was important to put a case for independence in a thoroughly professional way.