Major launches crusade to save constitution n

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Fear of the unknown, the risk of change, and the threat to "a thousand years of British history" were yesterday presented by John Major as Labour's stark alternative for voters.

The Prime Minister told a Welsh Conservative rally in Holywell, north Wales: "We either stick to the people and policies that are bringing success and progress, or we risk it."

In the next few weeks, Mr Major said, the country faced a choice in an election. "It can change direction, veer off into the unknown, import new ways, and take a hammer and chisel to our constitution.

"Or it can choose the tried and trusted path we are on - a path bringing prosperity for more people as day succeeds day. We offer progress, not reckless change." That message, he said, would ensure a Conservative victory.

But with Mr Major gearing himself up for an inquisitorial role against Tony Blair in next Thursday's Commons debate on the constitution, opposition leaders reacted scornfully to yesterday's speech.

Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "This is a desperate attempt by the Conservative Party to cling on to power by clinging to the past.

"Mr Major's extraordinary case seems to be that everything's fine, that there's nothing wrong with politics ... The fact is that the British constitution is strong, and has lasted this thousand years, precisely because people in every age and every generation have had to modernise it, put it back in contact with its people."

Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, said the Tories' only constitutional proposal was a defence of the power of hereditary peers. "So while hereditary peers are left, unaccountable to anyone, cut off from the interests of ordinary people, with their thousand-year-old powers, people in Wales and Scotland are to be deprived of a greater say in how their countries are to be run," he said.

Portraying Labour as gloom-mongers, Mr Major said that Britain had a smile on its face; it had become the success story of Europe.

Repeating a refrain of his speech, he said it became more obvious "as day succeeds day" - another hint, or tease, that it remains in the Conservative interest to hold off the election until the latest date: 1 May.

The Prime Minister said that if the country stuck with the Tories, they could make Britain "the best place in the world to live", with more choice in education; more services offered by National Health Service GPs; more sporting, cultural and artistic "fruits of the Lottery"; more jobs and better training. The alternative was a Labour government that offered a return to the "quagmire" of constitutional change.

"A thousand days of Labour government could ditch a thousand years of British history," he said. "It's a poor bargain. Better to keep the history and ditch Labour."

Westminster speculation that Labour is planning to dump some of its constitutional commitments will be nailed by the shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook in a speech at the Hague today. He will say that in its first parliament Labour will work with the Liberal Democrats not only to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, end the right of hereditary peers to vote in the Lords, and provide devolved power to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, but also to stage a referendum on electoral reform.

"We will give the people the right to decide for themselves through a referendum whether they want to change the system by which they elect parliament," Mr Cook said. "It should not be politicians who have the final say in how they are elected, but the people."

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