The onslaught on the proposal for a tax-raising Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly immediately provoked an angry response from opposition parties.
Devolution for Scotland "and for some curious reason rather lesser devolution in Wales'' was the principal threat to the British constitution, Mr Major declared. ``All the things for the last 15 to 16 years they [Labour] have said are wrong . . . and they propose to spend the whole of their first year tearing up the British constitution . . . What sort of priority is that for the United Kingdom?''
He demanded to know: "What happens when there is a conflict between the Scottish parliament, if it was established, and the Westminster parliament? Who is supreme?
"What happens at some stage in the future if the Scottish National Party were to have a majority in a Scottish parliament and asked to leave the United Kingdom? What is the position then?"
Labour said its policy would strengthen the Union. George Robertson, the party's Scottish affairs spokesman, said: "What we're trying to do is avoid separation. This decentralisation plan we have, which involves eventually the English regions as well, isdesigned to revive the United Kingdom."
John Prescott, Labour deputy leader, said the attack was the reaction of a man under pressure. "Mr Major, to my mind, needs not to worry about the men with the grey suits. If he believes all that he's saying, it's the men with the white coats he'll have to worry about."
Menzies Campbell, MP for Fife North East, Liberal Democrat front-bencher and supporter of home rule, said the outburst bore all the hallmarks of "the unacceptable face of English nationalism". Blind refusal to acknowledge the need for constitutional reform plays directly into the hands of the separatists.''Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, which backs eventual independence, said: "The debate in Scotland has gone far beyond this. It's crystallised between devolution and independence. We can't start the whole thing again just because John Major's missed out.''
Mr Major's decision to up the ante in a BBC radio 4 Today interview comes as significant tracts of Labour's devolution policy remain in outline, awaiting key details. His onslaught was none the less exploited by Labour as a sign of a beleaguered prime minister seeking to shift the spotlight away from internal Tory strife over Britain's constitutional relationship with Europe, and from what Mr Major himself admitted was continuing public gloom in the wake of the recession.
But accusing Labour of seeking to "cash in'' on the innate pride in being Scottish, Mr Major declared: "Is there really a demand among the Scots to be the most heavily-taxed part of the United Kingdom?" A future assembly in Northern Ireland would not have fiscal powers and would be a "different sort of beast entirely,'' he added.
The plan had not been "thought through'' and raised a host of uncertainties over the level of tax that might be raised, the threat to inward investment and jobs, conflicts between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster and the spectre of an eventual request to leave the United Kingdom.
The commitment to legislate for the Scottish parliament within the first year of a Labour Government was made by Tony Blair, the party leader, on two occasions this year.
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