Major defends Scotland's place

Scots implored to keep 300-year-old Union which, he insists, is not at odds with Ulster policy
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Scotland Correspondent

John Major yesterday made a passionate defence of the Union between Scotland and England and rejected opposition charges of "double standards" over the Government's constitutional proposals for Northern Ireland.

Mr Major used a one-day visit to Scotland to reaffirm his unstinting, patriotic" backing for the 300-year-old Union. He dismissed claims by Opposition MPs north of the border that his support for a legislative assembly in Ulster conflicted with his opposition to a Scottish assembly.

Addressing business leaders at a Tory fund-raising dinner in Glasgow last night, Mr Major described the United Kingdom as "a country at ease with itself". But, he warned, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans to set up a Scottish parliament would be a "Trojan horse to independence", which would "scratch and infect the sore of separatism", stirring ill-feeling between different parts of the country.

If the "Union based on consent" broke down and Scots voted for independence, Mr Major said, a Conservative government "could not stop them". But he implored Scots "from the bottom of my heart ... resist this negative instinct". If Scotland chose to "sleepwalk" into devolution or independence, it would, he warned, "throw away in a constitutional maelstrom" its new-found prosperity because under a Scottish parliament taxes would rise, discouraging new investment.

Mr Major tackled head-on charges of government inconsistency in policy between Scotland and the province. There were "very significant differences" between Scotland and Ulster - "a deep sectarian divide, 25 years of killing, and a significant minority population [which] wishes to be part of another, foreign, country - the Irish Republic".

These differences, he said, meant that while in Ulster devolution could build a stable political future, in Scotland it would merely "toss aside as bits of dead history ... emotional ties of blood and shared experience over many centuries". He added: "Scots are patriotic. So am I. I have travelled the world but this is home, this is the United Kingdom."

The Government's proposals for Northern Ireland have transformed the constitutional debate in Scotland. Opposition MPs have seized upon John Major's plans for devolved assembly as a blueprint for home rule north of the border.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists argue that there is a fundamental contradiction in the Government's approach towards the province and Scotland. By proposing an elected legislative assembly at Stormont, the prime minister has conceded that devolution within the UK is possible, they say. That principle should be extended north of the border.

George Robertson, Labour's Scottish spokesman, who backs a devolved parliament in Edinburgh, said yesterday: "John Major is a nionist. He proposes an elected assembly with domestic law-making powers in Northern Ireland because, he says, it will strengthen the Union. At the same time, he vigorously opposes an elected legislative assembly in Scotland because, he says, it will destroy the Union. He can't have it both ways." Opposition MPs also contrast Mr Major's firm assurances that Ulster will have the right to vote on the planned constitutional reforms, with his refusal to grant a referendum north of the border.

Alex Salmond the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, said: "You can't apply the principle of self- determination selectively. There are serious constitutional issues at stake in both Northern Ireland and Scotland. If the people of Ulster have the right to vote directly on those issues, so should the Scots." Analysts point out that now that Mr Major has approved devolution for Ulster as part of the peace process, the so-called "Belfast question" will dog him right up to the next election.

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