The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997-2001 Parliament

Mr Major’s Commons Speech on the Constitution – 4 March 1998

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons Speech on the Constitution on 4th March 1998.

Mr Major: I echo the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) about the utter unacceptability of the fact that the time permitted to discuss this, perhaps the most crucial and central part of the whole Bill–the part upon which this whole constitutional experiment may founder to the damage of the whole United Kingdom–has been squeezed by a statement that could have been left until tomorrow, and an important Bill on broiler chickens.
Mr. McAllion: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Major: No, I shall not give way. I have things to say that are more important than answering the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I am delighted to speak after the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Throughout the consideration of the Bill, he has bravely identified the difficulties inherent in it, as he did with its predecessor many years ago. He and I do not always agree. In Hebden Bridge terms, there have been moments when others, not myself, might have referred to him as a . . . nuisance, but the way in which he has campaigned against a very bad and blatantly wrong Bill that is self-evidently damaging to the United Kingdom redounds strongly to his credit. I much admire what he has done.
This bad Bill will do more damage to the United Kingdom than any Bill for generations, and will institutionalise advantages for Scotland and for Scottish Members of Parliament. The Bill will do more: over time, it will institutionalise resentment against Scotland and Scottish Members of Parliament, which is not a light matter for those of us who care about the unity of the United Kingdom.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Major: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not. Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall be brief. The key point–
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus): The right hon. Gentleman has not attended a debate before today.
Mr Major: The debate is brief because there is a guillotine at 5.30 pm, and the Government have outrageously wasted most of the available time. The key point–what has become known as the West Lothian question–is the way in which the Bill will unbalance the constitution. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow said, what the Bill proposes is unsustainable. Bluntly, what justification is there for Scottish Members of Parliament being able to vote on education, health and other matters affecting my constituents in England, when they cannot vote on those matters as they affect their own constituents?
There is no logical reason for Scottish Members of Parliament being able to vote on matters that affect the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, when English, Welsh and Northern Irish Members of Parliament will be unable to vote on those matters as they affect people who live Scotland. What would happen–the hon. Member for Linlithgow touched gently upon this point–if a Government party had an overall majority in the United Kingdom, but was in the minority in England?
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): What happened when the Government party was in the minority in Scotland?
Mr Major: If the hon. and learned Gentleman cares to look back, he will see that previous Labour Governments have sustained a majority with Scottish Members of Parliament. The difference is that the Bill proposes that the Scottish Parliament will have exclusive responsibility for certain issues and the power to tax. If he does not understand that, he should listen to the debates and then contribute.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Major: No, the hon. Gentleman can make his speech in a few moments.
Mr. Salmond: On a point of order, Mr. Lord. The former Prime Minister, for whom I have some regard, seems to be unaware that we are continuing a debate that we were having 10 days ago. Is it in order to attend the second half of a Committee debate and refuse to take interventions?
The Second Deputy Chairman: It is up to right hon. and hon. Members to decide whether to take interventions.
Mr Major: I shall deal with that point briefly. Of course the debate was going on the other evening, but it was agreed that there would be a further two hours of debate today. There has not been a further two hours of debate, and some hon. Members who want to speak on this issue will not be able to do so. I intend to be brief so that the hon. Gentleman can contribute, if only he will cease interrupting.
I return to the point about what will happen in England. Will the English be treated less favourably constitutionally than the Scots under this Bill and the Welsh under the Government of Wales Bill? That is not sustainable. With their majority, the Government can drive the Bill through the House, and show every intention of doing so. I beg the Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution to consider what that will do over time to opinion in England. Does he really want to arouse nationalism across an England that resents the Scots and the Welsh? I do not want that to happen; yet I fear that the nature of the Bill, and the way in which the Government are driving it through the Commons, will lead to such an outcome.
Is there a credible answer to the West Lothian question? Not without a rebalancing of the constitution once the Bill has become law, as it now almost certainly will.
Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Major: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. No one in the House has any doubt about my feeling on the issue over many years. I have never made any secret of the fact that I think that the sort of constitutional change that is proposed is very short-sighted. It is being introduced for party political advantage, and over time–a long time–it will backfire. I am concerned about the long-term future of the United Kingdom, not the short-term advantage of politicians who see some advantage in supporting the Bill at the present time.
The only gainers from the Bill, over time, will be those who genuinely favour–the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) does, and has made no secret of it–a separatist Scotland, a Scotland broken away from the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government, who claim that that is not their position, will have to answer at the bar of history for having brought about circumstances that may create exactly that eventuality.
If the Bill goes through, it will be necessary to bring about further constitutional change to minimise the damage and the resentment across the United Kingdom that the Bill will create. I do not know whether that means an English Parliament–which I do not myself favour–an English Grand Committee, or some other stratagem. Clearly, much more thought will be needed than we can give this afternoon, but changes there will undoubtedly need to be once the Bill is on the statute book.
I say that changes will have to come, because the constitutional vandalism of this ill-thought-out pig’s breakfast of a Bill will demand further change elsewhere in the United Kingdom to protect the position of people elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and to protect the working practices of the House.
Sir Robert Smith: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Major: Surely the hon. Gentleman heard me say that I would not give way. I want as many hon. Members as possible to be able to speak. I have made it clear repeatedly over the past seven years, and over the past few months when the Bill has been contemplated, that I absolutely understand, and admire, the sense of national pride in Scotland. No one disputes that. I believe, however, that the Scots will find that the menu that has been laid before them is a menu without price. There is a price to be paid, in Scotland and elsewhere–
Mr. McAllion: You paid the price.
Mr Major: If I did, I paid the price for standing up for what I thought was right for the United Kingdom. I did not stand up for what I thought was right for Labour party political interests, which is what the present Government have done.
Scotland cannot have extra privileges; it cannot have more public expenditure; it cannot have excessive representation in the House; and it cannot have constitutional advantages over the rest of the United Kingdom–if that United Kingdom is to remain united, as I wish it to. This is a divisive Bill. Let us not mince words. Not so much in the short term, as in the long term, the Bill will damage the unity of the United Kingdom dramatically. It brings change, and it will create a demand for more change. It is a constitutional whirlwind, and we will reap the harvest–not just in the House, where we can cope with our procedures, but in regard to something far more important and far more long-standing: the unity of the United Kingdom itself.
On that issue, the House may not be able to make changes in the Bill, given the majority in favour of it; but the time will come when those who railroaded it through will have to answer for what they have done, and others will have to correct the errors that they have made.