Election '97: Party leaders take war over devolution north of the border

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The Independent Online
John Major and Tony Blair went head to head over Scottish devolution yesterday as they took their campaigns north of the border.

Mr Major brushed aside the turmoil in the Scottish Tory party and predicted the Conservatives would increase their seats in Scotland by campaigning against Labour plans for a Scottish parliament.

The Prime Minister went to the Scottish borders hamlet of Gretna Green, where runaways traditionally got married, to unfurl a Union flag, marking the start of his Scottish campaign.

Warning that Labour would increase taxes north of the border and threaten the Union, Mr Major said: "I'm here to symbolise a marriage which has lasted 290 years and I hope would be good for another 290 years. It is a marriage that has served both partners well."

He told party workers at the Old Smithy Restaurant: "We will take more Conservative Members of Parliament from Scotland than we have at the moment."

The Tories are defending 10 seats in Scotland and their position was undermined when internal feuding led to Sir Michael Hirst being forced to resign as the party chairman at the weekend amid speculation, which proved false, that there would be disclosures about his private life.

Sir Michael was not at Gretna Green to greet the Prime Minister yesterday, although they are close friends. Mr Major was met by Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, and by Annabel Goldie, who replaced Sir Michael.

The Prime Minister's arrival caught a newly married couple on the hop. Michael and Majella Rigney had been married two hours earlier by the registrar at Gretna Green when the Mr Major and his entourage arrived.

Mr Rigney said: "We have come over from Derry and were hoping we were going to have a quiet wedding. We were hoping it was going to be in private." He joked: "Wait till my wife finds out."

They were introduced to Mr Major and his wife, Norma, after waiting a further two hours while the Majors toured the Old Smithy. Mr Major said: "There is more at stake than one general election, it is the future of Scotland."

Struan Stevenson, the Tory candidate for Dumfries, said: "People on the doorstep are sick to death of sleaze. They are sick of politicians arguing with each other. Everybody is saying they want us to get down to the real issues."

Mr Major said the Tories had published a full manifesto on Scotland. "Mr Blair has written a Scottish manifesto and comes up from London with it in his back pocket and tells George Robertson [Labour spokesman on Scotland] what he stands for."

Mr Major's battle bus drove back into England for the Prime Minister's first appearance on a new, hi-tech soapbox. The platform, a 3ft-high metal box with steps, was extracted from the side of the bus for Mr Major to deliver a speech in the market square in Carlisle after a walkabout.

Appearing to enjoy the heckling, Mr Major told the crowd when he had been accused of being "chicken", that Labour had planned to launch their manifesto in the City in the street known as the Poultry.

Some of his jokes were booed but he was loudly applauded when he said Mr Blair had refused to allow his children to be educated in the Labour Borough of Islington, north London.

He had difficulty over unemployment but told the crowd: "I happen to be a working man and I am going to keep myself in my job on 1 May."

Tony Blair took the fight for Scotland into the Stirling constituency of Mr Forsyth. But the Labour leader went on a walk-about in the town to drum up support for the party's candidate, Anne McGuire, who needs a swing of only 0.3 per cent, just 237 votes, to topple Mr Forsyth. Almost inevitably, Mr Blair was greeted not only by hundreds of cheering supporters, but by the Conservative Party's new mascot - a large yellow chicken holding a placard bearing the words "Answer the West Lothian question"- referring to Tory concerns over Scottish devolution.

Alastair Orr, the Conservative constituency party chairman, rejected charges that the chicken was lowering the debate to the level of "puerile student union politics".

He replied: "We are saying Labour are chicken and are running scared. When they will answer some questions, then we will get serious."

Ms McGuire said: "This is just a pathetic stunt by a pathetic group of people. We're committed to the establishment of a Scottish parliament. The so-called West Lothian question will be dealt with during the establishment of that parliament."

The West Lothian question raises the anomaly of Scottish MPs in London being able to vote on English policy while English MPs would not be able to vote on policy in Scotland.