John Major: watch me, then judge me

Andrew Marr, Columnist of the Year, and Donald Macintyre, Political Editor, find the Prime Minister reinventing himself as a constitutional reformer
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The Independent Online
John Major is turning political reformer. He has been brooding quietly on the state of the nation for months and is hatching a dramatic new development in the Government of Scotland and Wales. He means to take the wind out of the Labour and Liberal Democrat home rule proposals and prevent the Scottish Nationalists from dividing the United Kingdom. It sounds like the biggest Tory move on devolution since the abortive proposals for a Scottish Convention from Edward Heath and Alec Douglas Home a generation ago.

The Prime Minister is not giving the details away yet; they will be announced by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, in a few weeks' time. But he said: "People in Scotland, who often feel cut off from parliamentary debate in London want better access to government. I was in Scotland on the day the parties released their Convention document - a very important document for Scotland. I don't agree with what was in the document, but it was a very important event. The London press virtually failed to cover it. There was hardly a word. I can understand very clearly why the Scots feel that Westminster is a long way off and that nobody is paying interest. I don't think that is attractive.

"As you know, I think the proposition for a Scottish Parliament is flawed for economic and constitutional reasons ... but I have had discussions with Michael Forsyth ... and I hope we will be able to announce the outcome of our discussions within a very few weeks."

But what outcome? "I am afraid I won't tell you today." Damn. Darned teasing, prime ministers. But as he was pressed on precisely why he thought the Home Rule Parliament proposed by the Opposition was politically misguided, Mr Major's thinking quickly sharpened. Because of the way Labour had framed its proposals "they could provide a platform for a separatist party to gain a majority in Scotland and claim a mandate for separatism. Once that demon rears its head it is very difficult to deal with as we have seen in different parts of the world.

"What I fear is happening ... is that the Labour Party are offering a proposition for Scotland to keep the Scottish Nationalists at bay because it is in Labour's political interests to do so. And they have not considered the long-term view of what opportunities that might give the separatist party to turn Scotland into a separate nation. Nobody should be in any doubt that Scotland could be a separate nation. It is perfectly credible. There are 5 million Scots, and Scotland could stand on its own; it would be weaker as Scotland than as part of the United Kingdom, but it could stand on its own."

So his main concern was to prevent the SNP winning a majority in a Scottish Parliament? It was. So how did his thinking relate to the last Tory proposals, from Alec Douglas Home in 1969-70, after the then Tory leader, Edward Heath, had announced in the "Declaration of Perth" that he was moved by the clamour of change in Scotland? Those proposals would have set up a 125-strong Scottish Convention which would have had the right to discuss, but not initiate, Scottish legislation, and would have remained connected to Westminster.

Mr Major said that at that time there had not been a "third, nationalist party openly committed to separatism, but that could credibly win a majority within an election in Scotland in a few years' time. We suggested that his logic implied that he was going to propose that Scottish MPs elected to Westminster should return to debate and even vote on Scottish legislation in Edinburgh by themselves, but with a Commons override, perhaps on third reading." He leaned back. He was silent for a moment.

"Really, I must recruit you into the Policy Unit," he replied. But he didn't go further and warned us about reading too much into this. We will have to wait. Whatever he is planning, though, "will have ramifications for Wales". The Celtic fringe has been warned.

A similarly intriguing and unexpected reply came later when we pressed the Prime Minister on Tony Blair's proposal on Wednesday that, to avoid race entering British political debate on the back of the new Asylum and Immigration Bill, Mr Major should agree to a special Commons Standing Committee looking into the proposals. Well, he was considering it very seriously, he told us. He swiped at the Labour leader: "If Mr Blair had been really serious about that - he's known this Bill was around for some time - he would have put the point to me privately. He emphatically did not do that. What he did was throw it in the middle of a highly contentious part of his speech during one of the most high-profile parliamentary events of the year." That said something about his motives.

Even so? Because he would have no truck with racism and was worried that some Opposition members would exploit the Bill, "I am looking very carefully indeed to see if it would be appropriate to use this Standing Committee. You would be wrong to assume that I would routinely come back and say no. That is not a commitment that I am going to say yes, but because I do not want it to be a matter of race ... I am looking very carefully at what the practicalities are. It would be new, in the sense that this procedure is usually intended for matters that are not controversial between the parties. So it would be breaking new ground, but I am genuinely looking at whether it would be right to do so. I will make a decision within a few days."

Mr Major said he was concerned that if he agreed, the Labour Party would gleefully say it had forced him to change his mind. "If I change my mind it would be because I am concerned about good race relations ... we have a problem with asylum procedures

This sounds as if he is leaning towards yes.

His third constitutional move was towards Northern Ireland. He is about to send details of a revised twin-track plan to the Dublin government. It would mean the establishment of an international arms decommissioning body, chaired by a "distinguished American". Asked whether it would be George Mitchell, a former Senate leader and President Clinton's economic adviser, the Prime Minister grinned: "You might say that, I couldn't possibly comment." There would then be all-party talks. He regarded the Sinn Fein position on arms as untenable. "Their negotiating position is always to say no, no, and then at the end of the day to see what is agreed." But he seemed at least mildly optimistic and refused to be drawn on John Bruton's recent London speech, which caused anger in Whitehall.

On Northern Ireland least surprisingly, but also on Scotland and Wales and on parliamentary procedure, Mr Major was making Tory reformist noises. "I just think that people have not noticed what has been going on. Over the past couple of years we have made incremental, evolutionary reforms of parliamentary procedure. We have made quite significant moves on Scotland ... I have changed the basis on which the honours list is determined and made quite significant moves to open government, publishing the [Cabinet] committees. I produced the Security Services Bill which opens up the security services to scrutiny in a way we have not seen before.

"We have gone further down the line on Northern Ireland. There are some more proposals coming for Scotland. But I am a Conservative. I believe in doing things in an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, fashion. I would defy any dispassionate judge to go over any single parliament in recent years and find as many moves from previously fixed positions on constitutional issues as I have just outlined to you."

Still trying to adjust to the notion of John Major as sandal-wearing reformer, we moved on to the more familiar territory of the opinion polls and the Conservatives' dismal position at the beginning of what is being billed as one of the longest political campaigns in recent history.

The Prime Minister had just been reading a new survey of the European labour market which showed that a higher proportion of adult Britons were in work than in Germany or France. He waved it around. The bad-looking unemployment figures were, he was convinced, unimportant beside the general downward trend.

There had been some "sparklingly good figures" on borrowing. Better corporation tax receipts had started to come in. The inflation outlook was good. Earlier in the cycle he had avoided artificial, inflationary, stimulants and had paid a high political price, but now the benefits were starting to come through.

"You have to go back very many years to find an economic platform which looks as good as this one - very many years." It was an "extremely good backdrop to the Budget".

On Europe he seems almost a changed man who believes that the arguments are going his way. He argued in detail and at length that enlargement was both essential for binding in the Eastern democracies, but would also scupper the Common Agricultural Policy, raise question-marks over the future of the Cohesion Fund, which subsidises the EU's poorer members, and make monetary union more difficult. How, he wondered would the single currency countries cope with the competitive devaluations of the other EU members around them?

Mr Major believes that a Labour government would have even greater problems with Euro-rebels than he has endured. We suggested to him that Michael Portillo's speech at the party conference about the menace of Brussels hadn't been to his liking, though he'd applauded it. A very long silence. "Well, you were at the conference."

Another silence. It wasn't the kind of speech he would have made? More silence. "You were at the conference as well." Silence yet again.

He didn't give us the impression that he intends to rule out a single currency as his own right-wing urge. On a referendum before any such change, he sounded more encouraging. He had never ruled it out, he reminded us - with one eye, perhaps, on Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party - but "it is unwise to commit yourself too far in advance." He agreed, though, that the EU had run ahead of the peoples of Europe. "Maastricht happened too early," was his sharp summary.

Across the rest of the domestic agenda, Mr Major mocked the idea that his party had lurched to the right. "It's a funny lurch, that's all I can say." We should look at the Cabinet. "Look at the names - Heseltine." The Prime Minister had started to work his way mentally around the Cabinet table, at which we were sitting, and then thought better of it. "Well, I won't go through the names."

He would not be drawn on his own plans; on how long he intended to stay in this job. But he argued that the party was now engaged in more serious, longer-term thinking and planning than at any time in the past quarter- century. "We have absolutely failed to get that across." But he was not discouraged, he insisted. "It's a long game ... I will be judged at the next election. And I will be judged by people after the next election. One comes after another. But they are both important." The second judgement was? "Yes, history." Was there a ghost of a suggestion that he expected the second judgement to be kinder than the first one? We might possibly think that.