The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Focus on Scotland Speech – 24 February 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Focus on Scotland Speech, delivered on 24th February 1995.


Tonight I want to tell you about three things that matter to me. First about securing lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Second, about the interests of Scotland in remaining part of the United Kingdom. Third, about building economic strength for the long term.

Peace, a United Kingdom, building prosperity. That is the sort of country at ease with itself I want to build.

Let me start with the proposals I launched this week in Belfast.

Terrorism and sectarian violence have cost 3,000 lives in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years, and have touched the lives of everyone in the Province.

That threat has not been ended by six month of ceasefire. The paramilitaries have not yet put away their weapons. Even when they do – as they must, if they are to enter normal democratic life – scars will remain.

But Northern Ireland now has an unprecedented opportunity. A chance for stability and lasting peace which has not existed in 70 years.

We made three main proposals in our Framework Documents:

– For a new Assembly with responsibility fairly distributed between the parties.

– For new North/South institutions, under the Assembly’s control.

– And for a new agreement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

These three elements combined can help us to meet the aspirations of both traditions in Northern Ireland.

The greatest opportunity of all, of course, is to build a lasting peace.

We have already made more progress than was thought possible.

In Northern Ireland everyday life has been transformed.

People can now choose:

– Whether to remain in entrenched positions, Nationalist or Unionist, and to shy away from new ideas and a new accommodation;

– Or to help us build the best chance of progress in 25 years through serious, constructive discussion of our three-stranded approach.

It is a choice between drifting back to sterile misery; or moving forward through free negotiation, underpinned at every stage by the principle of consent.

Many difficulties lie ahead. The road to a comprehensive settlement will be a very hard one, but it can now be travelled and the prize for Northern Ireland is very great. A lasting peace, a secure future and the possibility of laying to rest for ever the enmities that have scarred Ulster for too long.

Constitutional debates have arisen right across the United Kingdom. They have one thing in common. At the end of the day, the Sovereign will of any part of the United Kingdom must prevail. That is true for the people of Northern Ireland. It is true also in Scotland. If the people of Scotland ever decided they wanted to leave the United Kingdom, they would do so. We could not stop them. But what we can do, and what I shall do tonight is to argue that it is not in Scotland’s interests to embark upon a route that could lead to separation.

People ask – “what’s the difference between Scotland and Northern Ireland?”

Self-evidently there are differences. The risks are different and the rewards are different. Let me set some of these out.

Northern Ireland has been riven by a deep sectarian divide. The history of Northern Ireland has been 250 years of suspicion followed by 25 years of killing. In Scotland, the last three centuries of union have been years of peace, prosperity and growing influence in the world.

Sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland mean that none of the main political parties in Northern Ireland are mainstream political parties in the UK. In contrast Scotland has more than full representation in the UK Parliament.

The voice of Scotland is well represented throughout the mainstream political parties on both Government and opposition benches at Westminster. It is from its strength in Scotland and Wales that the Labour Party derives its potential claim to govern the United Kingdom. That is not true of the parties in Northern Ireland.

The legislation which affects Northern Ireland is enacted almost exclusively, not through the scrutiny of Parliament, but by order in Council. And there is only the most limited degree of local government at present in Northern Ireland, whilst Scotland has a well-established tradition about to be reinforced with new single-tier councils.

But the differences are wider than that.

A significant minority of the Northern Ireland population wishes, not to be independent, but to be part of another – foreign – country – the Irish Republic. In that context the idea of an assembly offers a chance of stability – and harmony. But no one in Scotland wants to leave the UK in order to be subsumed in a foreign country. In Scotland separatists see a Scottish Parliament as a means to achieve their ultimate goal of complete independence.

Another difference is that in Northern Ireland the assembly may have legislative powers, but crucially, it will not have the tax raising powers proposed for a Scottish parliament.

So let me turn to the dangers of a devolved Parliament for Scotland. My case for the Union is both emotional and pragmatic.

Emotional because of the ties of history, of blood and shared experience over many centuries. These ties are strong. They speak to me and to millions of other people in Britain. They matter. And because of that they cannot just be tossed aside as bits of old dead history which have no power to stir the hearts of our generation. Lord knows we see enough examples in this country of the damage that is done when our traditions are ridiculed and the lessons of the past ignored. Our generation does not have all the answers.

That doesn’t mean there can be no change to the relationship between England and Scotland. Of course they can. The great strength of the Union lies in its diversity and flexibility. It is a Union based on consent, not repression. That diversity has given us incalculable benefits. Our differing talents and approaches have made ours a more open and tolerant and more prosperous society. We’ve used our separate strengths to create a stronger whole.

Of course in the end we can’t hold a Union together against the wishes of its people. But as Prime Minister, I must point out the dangers and the true issues at stake. I want to spell out the damage that devolution could do. It is not England’s interests or the Conservative Party’s interests I’m talking about. It’s Scotland’s interests. I don’t want to see the Scottish people sleepwalking into a decision which will damage and weaken Scotland and throw away all the opportunities you have earned over the past two decades.

Suppose a Scottish Assembly has been set up with tax-raising powers. For starters we know it would have powers to make the Scots pay an extra 3p in income tax as a down-payment for the privilege of being Scottish. That’s 6 pounds extra for the typical family every week. But, of course, that’s only the beginning. Like Oliver Twist, it would ask for more – and it would get more. Whenever Scotland wanted more expenditure, the Westminster Parliament would probably say ‘Yes – but you raise it in Scotland.’

How would Scottish business react? The days when Westminster could control spending and taxation throughout our country would be over. With wage demands higher because taxes are higher; with business shackled by the Social Chapter and minimum wage, where would be the incentive to come to Scotland? Would such policies in future bring such sound investment as Motorola, NEC and Digital to Scotland? Would such policies keep such investors in Scotland?

Let me tell you my fears. A devolved Parliament in Scotland would inevitably come into conflict with a Westminster Parliament. There would be disputes over taxation and spending. There’d be disputes about the representation of Scots MPs at Westminster.

There’d be disagreement over how much the Scots should benefit from taxes raised across the United Kingdom. Before long the majority in a Scottish Parliament would clash with the majority at Westminster. And that would harden attitudes, and lead to bitterness and resentment which would not be easily quelled.

These squabbles are inevitable. And who would gain from them? The people who would gain from them are the very people arguing for independence.

Let me offer you a quotation:

“The proposal is that we can have unity without disunity. The proposal is that the best way to stand up to the nationalists is to lie down in front of them. That characterises devolution”. Not my words, but those of Mr Neil Kinnock. I could hardly have put it better myself.

Devolution, in the context of Scotland, is the Trojan Horse to independence.

I have always stood up in defence of the Union. At the time of the last election, some people wondered why. It was, after all, far from obvious at the time that “playing the union card” as some people put it, would benefit the Conservative Party in electoral terms.

But for me it was not and has never been a matter of political calculation. Scots are patriotic. So am I. I have travelled the world but this is home, this United Kingdom. For me, it is above Party, above politics. If I were seeking mere party advantage I should welcome change at Westminster. To remove a large proportion of Labour MPs by consigning them to a Scottish Assembly might mean near perpetual Conservative majorities at Westminster. The truth is we sometimes pay a heavy price electorally for standing up for the Union. But that is not the point. The point is the unity of the United Kingdom. And that is worth the fight.

I know – in the debate about Scotland’s future constitution, there is a tendency to brush economic considerations away, as if they were somehow irrelevant to the debate. But the economy matters, as we’ve seen in the last few years as we’ve wrestled our way through the recession.

So let me turn to the Scottish economy.

Something very remarkable has happened in Scotland over the last 16 years. Five years ago, people thought Scotland would suffer in the recession just as much as England and Wales. Yet, that didn’t happen. Overall, while output fell elsewhere in Britain, in Scotland it hardly fell at all.

Some said it couldn’t last. Scotland would have its recession later.

But they were wrong. Of course some businesses have found the going tough. But overall Scottish businesses emerged from the recession far better than any one expected – and far more strongly than the rest of Britain. In every year from 1988 to 1993, the Scottish economy did better than the rest of the UK. Before 1992, Scottish unemployment was higher than in the rest of Britain. Since 1992, its been lower – for the first time since records began. And the economy is still growing strongly.

Why did the forecasters get it wrong? Perhaps they couldn’t raise their eyes to understand the change that has come about as a result of 16 years in which the right decisions were taken for Scotland and for the United Kingdom. Union reforms, privatisation, tax cuts, opening markets to competition, and policies which have now put us on a path for steady and sustained growth with low inflation for many years to come.

Consider – and this is remarkable – consider the change in Scotland’s manufacturing base. Once more Scotland is making things and selling things of high quality all round the world. Not so many ships, not so much steel, but 11% of Europe’s semiconductors, 35% of Europe’s personal computers, over 50% of Europe’s automated banking machines and nearly 60% of Europe’s workstations. All of this with just 1.5% of Europe’s population.

In the last quarter the number of people working in manufacturing industry rose for the first time since records began – in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Our manufacturing base is widening. And when you consider the consistent decline in manufacturing employment we have all experienced since the Second World War, that really is a change around.

I want that to continue. In the next two years, the Scottish economy is forecast to grow by nearly 5.5%. It will continue to grow providing we stick to our policies to keep inflation down – providing we stick to the course we have set to reduce Government borrowing – a course which brings us closer by the day to a time when we can get back to our agenda of cutting taxes once again.

What are the results of all these changes in Scotland’s prospects?

There’s an old stereotype in Scotland – the young man, fresh out of school or university, the world at his feet, talented, ambitious. What does he do? He leaves Scotland. In the old days he built the British Empire. He came down South too. You’ll find talented Scottish people well represented in virtually any profession of business in England. Even in Whitehall and Westminster.

Scottish talent used to be Scotland’s biggest export.

But all that has changed. The world today really is an oyster for young people. Yet in Scotland people are voting with their feet in a quite remarkable way.

In the 1970s, Scotland lost 5,000 people per year to the rest of the United Kingdom. Since 1989, they’ve been coming back. The balance has swung the other way, 8,000 more people a year have chosen to live in Scotland from the rest of Britain. 13,000 more people every year choose Scotland, who would otherwise have stayed away or moved elsewhere. We’ve reversed the long term decline in Scotland’s population.

People are flooding back for one simple reason: jobs. Not just any jobs, but jobs with a future in industries of the future, industries that will provide their children with jobs. Jobs that give them security, enabling them to live better lives, build up wealth, own more, do more, achieve more.

The prospects before us are better than for generations.

That is why – from the bottom of my heart I say – this isn’t the time to scratch and infect the sore of separatism. This isn’t the time to stir ill feeling between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Let’s resist this negative instinct to turn our backs on our closest neighbours in sullen and isolationist resentment.

Over 300 years, it is the Union that has given Scotland its standing in the world and its prosperity. And now it is within the Union that Scotland is becoming one of the most successful modern economies of Europe.

We should be raising our eyes and building on that, not risking throwing it all away in a constitutional maelstrom.

You are a success story. The Union is a success story. The rest of the world admires you and all that you have done. Don’t throw it away because someone tells you the grass is greener on the other side.

Let the successes continue and grow.

Be bold, be confident and focus on Scotland and build its greatness in the United Kingdom.