The Tories in Bournemouth: Lang stresses 'high price of devolution'

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

IAN LANG, Secretary of State for Scotland, set out the dominant plank of Tory strategy for the next election yesterday, decrying Tony Blair's pledge of a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly as a massive 'failure of judgement'. of massive proportions'.

Mr Lang threw down the gauntlet by declaring that if Labour did snatch victory, its constitutional proposals which would clog up an entire parliamentary session would be fought by the Tories 'tooth and nail, clause by clause, line by line, word by word'.

Putting his finger firmly on the issue that may prove to be the most intractable for the Labour leader, Mr Lang warned during yesterday's devolution debate that Scotland would pay a heavy political and financial price for a separate parliament with fiscal powers.

In a blow-by-blow exposition of the so-called 'West Lothian' question, he said: 'What about Scotland's voice in the UK Cabinet? That could not go on.

'What about the present level of Scottish representation at Westminster guaranteed since the Act of Union? That could not go on.

'What about the substantial resources devoted by the UK government to Scotland, just as to Wales and to Northern Ireland and to some parts of England, to ensure a level standard of public services? If Scotland could raise and lower her own taxes, that could not go on.'

In what could turn out to be one of the most telling speeches of the conference, Mr Lang said just as John Major had done in 1992, the Tories would put the future of the Union at the heart of the campaign for the next election, 'and we'll win that one too'.

A Labour devolution Bill, being constitutional, would have to pass through all its stages on the floor of the House, and could not be guillotined. 'It would take up the entire parliamentary session (with) There would be no time for any other legislation . . . That, for the present, is the sum total of the Blair agenda. It is an agenda that is undeliverable.'

It represents a failure of judgement of massive proportions.'

Emphasising the theme of nationhood versus nationalism,

Mr Lang said: 'As no less an authority than Albert Einstein said, nationalism is 'an infantile sickness, the measles of the human race'.' He told a news conference afterwards that if Scotland came to a 'preponderant and settled view' that it wanted to leave the United Kingdom then 'that would happen. But what I am saying is that there would be a price to pay . . .In Scotland you cannot regard devolution as a one-sided balance sheet.'

But He rejected earlier criticism from the conference floor by that Northern Ireland was being treated differently. Adrian Lee, chairman of the National Young Conservatives, who said: 'If devolution is wrong in Scotland, England and Wales why it is right in Northern Ireland?' Recalling Stormont, Mr Lee said: 'As an integrationist, I really do hope that we do not return to that system of government . . .' in Northern Ireland in the future.'

Mr Lang insisted that it was 'simplistic to pretend that all parts of the United Kingdom are the same, and should be handled in exactly the same way'.

Conference speakers repeatedly accused Labour of attempting to seize the political advantage. Karen Lumley, from Wrexham, North Wales, said: 'Under Labour we would be taxed, taxed and taxed again by a talking shop based in Cardiff and dominated by South Wales.'

In a wry jab at nationalism,a representative from Carmarthen, OJ Williams from Carmarthen said: 'When I heard there was to be a debate on devolution, I levered the boulder from the doorway of my dwelling, selected the most appropriate wife for the trip and set off for the conference.'

He said Conservatives were not against true devolution 'because we practice practise it, removing tiers of administration and giving individuals choice over their own lives . . . The other parties believed in an entirely different form of devolution to institutions acquiring power for themselves. 'We don't need an assembly, an ersatz parliament in Wales, to maintain our nationhood.'

(Photograph omitted)