LEADING ARTICLE: Reshaping the Union, the McMajor way

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The Independent Online
The reputation of British politics has fallen so low that any hint of honesty from one its leading practitioners should be as welcome as a modest display of ball control from an English footballer. So John Major's unexpected attempt to repackage himself as a constitutional reformer, albeit a cautious one, should be encouraged.

In his interview with the Independent published yesterday, the Prime Minister made three important acknowledgments about the state of the nation. Taken together, these admissions could open up a new front in politics over the future of the Union, devolution and Home Rule for Scotland. They also mark a further stage in Mr Major's attempt to pick himself up from the canvas, raise his guard and start slugging it out with Tony Blair.

The first significant admission was over Scotland's viability as a separate state. Speaking in tones normally employed to describe distant lands, Mr Major sounded as if he had discovered an interesting new fact: "There are five million Scots," he told us. Nobody should be in any doubt that Scotland could be a separate nation; it was perfectly credible, he warned.

That was followed by a strikingly frank assessment of the potency of the separatist current in Scottish politics. It suits Mr Major tactically to play up the scale of the threat that Scottish Nationalists might pose to the Union, but he is surely right that in the long run, separatists could claim a mandate to take Scotland out of the Union.

For Mr Major, the corollary of these two propositions is that one needs to take a long-term view of the future of Scottish governance rather than simply appeasing the nationalists, which is what he accuses Labour of doing. That means keeping the Union together by loosening its ties but retaining the primacy of Westminster. The separatist urges in Scottish politics will only be calmed if those five million Scots have greater access to political decision-making.

Mr Major's proposals will be unveiled by the Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, at the end of the month. They may well involve Scottish MPs elected to Westminster debating Scottish legislation separately before it is finally voted on by the House of Commons as a whole. So Westminster would retain the right to propose legislation; a conclave of Scottish MPs would have the right to amend it. It is most unlikely that Westminster would risk overruling amendments approved in Scotland. So a new accommodation with nationalism would have been arrived at, but within the Westminster system, within the Union.

It is not just Mr Major's frankness about Scotland that should be welcomed; it is also his serious engagement with what is probably the most far-reaching and demanding of tasks facing the modern political leader - the reshaping of the nation state. There are at least three components to that task - making Britain more competitive in the global market, finding it a settled place within a more integrated Europe and responding to the demands for devolution from the nations and regions that make up the UK. Mr Major has made precious little contribution to making Britain more competitive. But on the other two - European integration and constitutional reform - he could make some significant progress in his faltering, quiet way.

As far as constitutional reform is concerned, he has gone from being an implacable defender of the Union to realising that it has to become more flexible to survive. He could yet preside over a historic peace settlement in Northern Ireland, which would refashion the province's relationship with Britain. His proposals for Scotland could be taken up in Wales. On Europe, Mr Major has a new-found confidence that the arguments are going his way both within the EU and within his party. That confidence may be premature but it is not altogether without grounds.

It is almost as if Mr Major has stumbled by chance upon this theme of constitutional reform. Yet if he were to pull it off - a United Kingdom in which the various parts were more at ease with one another and a Britain more at ease with itself in Europe - it would be quite an achievement. It is not one that would necessarily be rewarded at the polls, but one that might be remarked upon approvingly by historians.

The Major approach, if that is not too flattering a description for something so ad hoc, has the shortcomings that are typical of him. He recognises that Scotland could be a viable separate country. Yet he argues that too much democracy would be dangerous; the Scots cannot be trusted with power because they might eventually vote for separation. This is the sort of argument against democracy that anciens regimes of one kind or another have been using for centuries. The case for a Home Rule parliament for Scotland is irresistible on moral grounds, and may become so on practical and political grounds.

Despite their limitations, the Scottish proposals are evidence that Mr Major is starting to learn how to fight back against Mr Blair - by getting in first, camping on the Labour leader's terrain or simply lifting his ideas. On Wednesday, during the Queen's Speech debate, for example, he dismissed the Labour leader's suggestion that the Asylum and Immigration Bill should be handled by a special Commons committee to prevent race becoming an issue in British politics. By Thursday, he was seriously considering the idea, and if he has any political nous, by next week he will be promoting it as his own.

His initiative on Scottish governance may be inadequate but it is not without merit, and it will put Labour's politically correct, soft nationalists on the spot. Everything the Tories are doing in Scotland - giving local authorities more freedom of manoeuvre, for instance - is designed to put Labour on the back foot. With this move, Mr Major will claim to be offering real devolution of power, which he will contrast to the grandiose, bloated, bureaucratic talking shop on offer from Labour.

Of course, Mr Major has a long way to go before he solves the Conservatives' great political problem in Scotland - the vast majority of Scots elect Labour MPs, but are ruled by Tories from Westminster. These proposals are unlikely to solve this problem, but they will alleviate it - and at the very least, Mr Blair will know that he still has a fight on his hands.