Election '97: Advance and retreat in the land of lovers ' theme park

To the haven for runaways came the man of the family. Joan Smith on the further misadventures of John Major
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Indy Politics
When John Major's British Midland 737 touched down at a wind-swept airfield near Carlisle on Thursday morning, it braked with such force that the Prime Minister, talking to a journalist in first class, had to brace his feet against the seat in front of him. The bumpy landing, it turned out, was due to the fact that the runway was about a thousand yards too short for the big prime ministerial plane. But, as the shaken press corps travelling with Mr Major climbed into coaches for the short journey across the border into Scotland, it seemed an appropriate start to a day in which nothing went quite as smoothly as intended.

First, Mr Major's foray into Scotland took him not into true-blue territory but a redrawn constituency - Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale - where, after boundary changes, the Liberal Democrats have a notional majority of just under 2,000. Given the internecine feuding among Scottish Conservatives, which last weekend delivered the scalp of the party's chairman in Scotland, Sir Michael Hirst, it may have been a relief to the Prime Minister to find himself in a place where local Tories are scarce.

In fact, as journalists milled around the pebbled forecourt of the The Old Blacksmith's Shop in Gretna Green, where eloping couples used to exchange vows over the anvil, it became apparent that there was a dearth not only of Tory voters but of anyone who could lay claim to Scottish nationality. A group of young women in brightly coloured cagouls turned out to be South African hikers, three elderly people straining to catch a glimpse of Norma Major belonged to a coach party from Yorkshire and even the smartly dressed couple who had just got married in Gretna that morning were from Northern Ireland.

When reporters did find an authentic Scottish Tory in the crowd, his story revealed the lengths to which party workers have to go in search of support. Steve Ellis, 18, a student at St Andrew's University, said he "once gave 50p or something" to the local party and was surprised to receive in return a letter asking if he would like to have lunch with the Prime Minister. Later, as Mr Major and Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, enjoyed a buffet lunch in Laird's Ice Cream Parlour, a bewildered-looking Mr Ellis was visible in pride of place through the sliding patio doors.

Mr Major's theme for the day was the importance of the Union. "What is at stake is the future of Scotland," he told the assembled tourists, journalists and curious locals, appealing to them to "go out and work as hard as you've ever worked in your life" for the Conservatives during the remaining weeks of the campaign. He unfurled a flag, apparently failing to recognise that the gesture - replacing the blue and white flag which normally flies in the village with the Union Jack - had upset residents before he even arrived.

"We've always got a Scottish flag," said 72-year-old Maria Lisgo, who has lived in Gretna since the Second World War. Mrs Lisgo said there was a lot of nationalist feeling in the area and, when she visited the baker's shop that morning, people were already complaining about the disappearance of the Scottish flag. But then Mr Major's choice of Gretna for his first full day of on-the-road campaigning indicated a shaky grasp of history. The village, with its tacky gift shops and sprawling visitor centre, is a classic example of theme park Britain, flogging such items as musical "See You Jimmy" tartan hats and a cut-price suit of armour (reduced from pounds 1,500 to pounds l,250) to coach parties on their way to somewhere more picturesque. What was even more bizarre was that Mr Major should visit Gretna, famous for elopements, in a week when his party's manifesto tried to encourage traditional marriage by offering tax incentives to married couples. Mr Major's big idea, unveiled on Wednesday, has a curious parallel with an earlier effort by the state to interfere in people's private lives, the infamous Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753 - the very piece of legislation to which Gretna Green owes its celebrity.

That Act, like the Conservatives' offer of tax relief to married couples, was motivated by a fierce dislike of the disparate ways in which people at the time were forming liaisons and raising children. It outlawed all forms of marriage - verbal contracts, common law marriages - that did not take place in church after the reading of banns and with parental consent, driving desperate young couples north of the border where the new rules did not apply. That was not the reason Michael Rigney and Majelia Gallagher, from Derry, chose Gretna for their wedding on Thursday morning but they revealed a defiant sense of their own country's history when a beaming Mr Major asked them how they would be voting. "Sinn Fein," was their reply.

The Prime Minister had slightly better luck that afternoon in Carlisle, where a crowd of several hundred was waiting to shake his hand - "It was gorgeous," exclaimed a visibly over-excited teenage girl - and hear another speech about the Union. "He was very good," enthused a 75-year-old woman who said she had been a Conservative voter for 35 years. "We're hoping a Conservative will win," said a second, equally coy Tory lady, ignoring the fact that the sitting Labour MP, Eric Martlew, has a notional majority, after boundary changes, of nearly 2,000.

Mr Major was obviously enjoying himself in the afternoon sunshine, addressing the crowd not from his soapbox but from a platform which slid out of the side of the blue and white campaign bus. Even some determined heckling didn't throw him off his stride. On the contrary, he appeared to relish it, responding to a shouted jibe about "Piers [Merchant] and his girlfriend" with the bizarre riposte "welcome to both of them".

What is striking about the Prime Minister, in these public confrontations, is his resemblance to a pedantic schoolmaster dealing with an unruly pupil. "If you listen I'll come to it and you'll learn something," he told one heckler, causing delighted guffaws among his elderly supporters in the crowd. Another dissenter, who held up a copy of the Big Issue and asked what Mr Major intended to do for the homeless, was dismissed with "Give your name to someone and I'll send you the manifesto" - presumably with a pot of glue and a handy pair of scissors so he can build a shelter out of it.

Mr Major's delivery at such moments is almost unbearably smug, as though his every response, no matter how mundane or predictable, strikes him as a model of wit and intelligence. "One document was published today of great worth," he said, aware that much of the day's political coverage would focus on the launch that morning of Labour's manifesto. "That was Wisden."

Coming immediately after his curt dismissal of the problem of homelessness, it hardly seemed surprising that the Prime Minister's performance was not well received by sections of the crowd. One angry young man in his early 20s was dragged away by the police and pushed up against the wall of a department store, complaining loudly.

"You're f****** finished," he shouted over one shoulder, consigning the Prime Minister to history as three uniformed officers hustled him away. With Mr Major moving into the realms of virtual reality, insisting that he was "looking forward to coming back to Carlisle with a new Conservative MP", it sounded like the shrewdest political judgement we had heard all day.