Unionist disunity? John Major blames Labour’s “deadly legacy” for putting the Union at risk

The former Conservative Prime Minister has stepped in to the Scottish independence debate, criticising the Labour party.

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John Major, like Gordon Brown who has also had a renaissance this week, is a far more exciting former Prime Minister than he was a Prime Minister.

He has entered into the Scottish independence debate today, writing a piece in the Times with the headline: “Labour’s deadly legacy puts the Union at risk”.

The former Conservative Prime Minister criticises the party’s “spectacularly one-sided” Devolution Act, passed in 1998, which gave legislative and administrative powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He argues that this Act has led to the current crisis in the Union.

Major also condemns the Labour party for having “connived with nationalist opinion in demonising the Conservatives” in Scotland during the Eighties and Nineties.

Here is an extract from his article:

The previous Labour government left a deadly legacy when it passed a Devolution Act that was spectacularly one-sided. It offered Scotland all it asked for and — apart from a small reduction in Scottish MPs — ignored the impact on the rest of the UK. It would be ironic indeed if Scotland voted for separation, and Labour lost all its significant representation in the Commons. If this comes to pass, no one should weep for them.

I welcome the present cross-party consensus to save the Union, but we should not forget that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Labour connived with nationalist opinion in demonising the Conservatives and, by implication, the English. They are doing it still, and have fed a divisive narrative that has bitten deep, ignoring the revolution in Scottish living standards brought about, in large part, by Conservative policies.

This intervention is a telling diversion from the usual narrative we’ve been hearing from the three main parties in Westminster. The pro-Union party leaders have been careful to maintain a united front throughout the referendum campaign. Notable examples of this include the joint refusal of a currency union by financial spokespeople George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls, and this week’s joint statement from the three main party leaders about prioritising Scotland over Westminster.

Major, who has occasionally gone rogue and unashamedly vocal since leaving government, may not directly reflect the views of the Tory leadership on this subject. However, his piece is notable in that it hints at how Cameron and co could react following the referendum. A blame game is bound to take place, particularly in the event of a Yes vote, with David Cameron’s  – and maybe even Ed Miliband’s – jobs on the line. Major’s piece suggests what kind of accusations will begin to fly.

The former PM tried to play down his argument when discussing it on the BBC’s Today programme this morning. He said it was a “waste of time” discussing it, when we should be concentrating on rescuing the Union from Scottish independence. He said independence would be a "disaster" and added, "I’m desperately concerned at what is happening." However, he did emphasise that, more than 20 years ago, he “first warned devolution would be a high road to separation”. If the referendum results in a Yes vote, other Conservative politicians will surely take a similar stance.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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