Devolution tract returns to haunt Chancellor

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Scotland Correspondent

Labour embarrassed Kenneth Clarke yesterday when Gordon Brown revealed that the staunchly Unionist Chancellor once supported stronger regional government, including Scottish devolution.

At a meeting of the Commons Grand Committee of Scottish MPs in Aberdeen, Mr Brown, the shadow Chancellor, unveiled a pamphlet which Mr Clarke wrote when he was a parliamentary candidate. In it, the Chancellor argued that thousands of people across Britain had "a legitimate grievance" that Westminster government was too remote.

Devolution was "one practicable answer" to the problem. The creation of new tax-raising regional parliaments, Mr Clarke said, "could strengthen the working of democracy in their areas and . . . take a lot of the workload off the national parliament".

Mr Brown told gleeful Labour MPs that the document proved Mr Clarke was a "closet supporter" of Labour's proposed Scottish assembly. "In Downing Street there is someone who has canvassed devolution and has supported everything Labour is proposing," he said.

But a red-faced Mr Clarke rubbished the charge, claiming the document, written in the late Sixties, was out of date. "Times have changed in 30 years. Not least in Scotland where we have a Scottish Office with vastly more powers than we had then and with hugely expanded responsibilities," he said.

Mr Clarke is the most senior Cabinet minister to address the Grand Committee of Scottish MPs. His appearance in Aberdeen is the latest stage of an attempt by Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, to bring Westminster closer to ordinary Scots, blunting Labour's arguments for a tax-raising Edinburgh assembly. John Major will appear before the committee next month.

Angered by the presence of an English Cabinet minister in a Scottish select committee, one Labour MP sought to challenge Mr Clarke's right to speak. Raising a point of order, George Foulkes said it was "insulting that someone on an away-day from Nottingham should come up and lecture to us in Scotland".

In a debate on economic affairs, the Chancellor told MPs that Tory reforms had bolstered the enterprise culture north of the border. Economic growth was higher than in many parts of England and Wales and unemployment was below the national average. But, he warned, Labour's proposed Scottish parliament with the power to raise income tax by up to 3p in the pound, threatened continued prosperity.

The "tartan tax", he predicted, "would lead to pressure for higher pay and higher prices, which would make Scottish businesses less competitive than those south of the border."

Mr Clarke said Labour wanted "Scottish people to opt out of all our United Kingdom success and flirt with policies that would put all this at risk." Tony Blair should ditch his tax- raising commitment.