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1992 - Mr Major’s Press Conference in Edinburgh

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference in Edinburgh, held on 11th September 1992.


GUS O’DONNELL:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Bute House. I apologise that we’re running a little late, but our very interesting discussions this morning overran. I’ll be brief. The Prime Minister will make a brief opening statement, and then the Prime Minister and Secretary of State will be happy to answer your questions. During that period, if you could, during the questions and answers, make clear names and organisations, and keep your questions just to single questions if that’s at all possible.

PRIME MINISTER:

Fine. Thank you, Gus. I’ll just speak very briefly at the moment, and then we’ll try and get in as many of your questions as I possibly can. I’ve come back to Scotland for a raft of reasons. Firstly, because I wanted to take the opportunity of last night’s dinner at the CBI to make a speech that’s relevant, not just to Scotland, but to the whole of the United Kingdom, and our relationship particularly with the European Community, and I was grateful of the opportunity of being able to do that in Glasgow. Some of you this morning may already have seen today’s inflation figures that were published around 40 minutes ago. The Retail Price Index is down from 3.7 to 2.6, but equally relevant, I think, is that the underlying rate of inflation has fallen from 4.4% to 4.2%, so the progress on inflation is continuing, and continuing steadily. In the Seminar we’ve had this morning - the Seminar is not an end in itself. It’s just part of a continuing process of taking stock. Scottish Office Ministers have been doing that in different ways. The Policy Unit have been doing it. I have been doing it on a number of visits to Scotland, but it is very easy for me to get hold of political opinion, to find out Party opinion, and to bring together business opinion. What I was seeking to do this morning was to bring together a number of distinguished Scots who were there in their personal capacities, not because of their particular public position, but because their personal experience and knowledge made it likely they would have something worthwhile to contribute as Scottish individuals, to the debate about the constitutional arrangements for Scotland.

I think it was a very good debate. There are a number of things within it that I propose to follow up with the individuals concerned, but it is just part of a continuing debate so I don’t propose to go into the details of what was said, and I think it is too early to draw conclusions from it. I will say it was a pretty wide ranging discussion, and in a number of areas, rather surprising points were made that I shall certainly wish to follow up with the individuals concerned, perhaps in further meetings, perhaps in correspondence, so from my point of view, it was an extremely useful occasion. Now, I am in a few moments going to have the opportunity of extending this debate. We have a large lunch here for Scottish lawyers and members of the Church, and this afternoon you might say, or may not yet know, I’m going to have a look at Holyrood House to check the arrangements for the European summit that will take place in December. So that is broadly the pattern of the day. I’m now happy to take whatever questions you may have.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you talked about surprising points there. Could you perhaps give us a little bit more information about what those points were, and why they were surprising?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the - I’m not going to give you details of them all, no, but I think there was a different perspective put on some of the constitutional questions that have been asked in Scotland in the past. There was a great deal of concern expressed by a number of people around the room about decentralisation as opposed to devolution. That applies to the private sector, of course, as well as to the public sector, and it was a point made that that affects too the lives of people in Scotland. There was also a point, I thought rather a striking point, that one of the things that took authority away from the Regions, not just Scotland, but the other Regions in the past, was nationalisation because it necessarily centred the decision-making process far away, and that was another point that emerged, and so there are a whole series of angles on the debate - some historians, a number of people in other practical professions, farmers - that were actually raised during today’s discussion.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, your opponents, your political opponents, say that this morning was largely a stunt. Do you have any particular comments to make on that? They say it was a charade, no real substitute for genuine consultation

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they would, wouldn’t they? What would you expect them to say? If I wasn’t here talking to people from Scotland who are distinguished individuals, they would say, why am I not here doing precisely that? As I am here doing that, they say “Well, it’s a charade”. They may wonder why I haven’t invited them to have a discussion with them. Well, I know their opinion. I get their opinion weekly in Parliament. I’m aware of what it is. I’m able to consider it. I know its value, and I want to stretch out beyond that, so they are saying what I would expect them to say, but I don’t think it really matters. We will continue with consultation, and when we’ve reached conclusions we’ll announce what they are.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, David Whitton, Scottish Television. We’ve heard about the taking stock exercise almost ad nauseam, since the Election. Can you give any indication at all as to when the taking stock will cease, and you’ll come up with some solutions?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, let me come back to the point I was making just now. If I produced a solution now, you’d stand up and ask me a question about how I could possibly have consulted all the people who needed to be consulted in this time, and the answer is, I can’t have done, so I’m going to go on consulting until I am sure I have got a rounded view of Scottish opinion, and when I’m certain that I have a rounded view of Scottish opinion I will discuss that with my colleagues, and we will make decisions. I can’t put a time frame to it because I don’t know how far the debate will develop and what points will arise within it, but as soon as we have our decisions we will make them, and there will be no unnecessary delay.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, Rona Campbell, Sky Television. The reduction in inflation has been minimal today. What do you have to say about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s steady and it’s consistent. It’s only two years ago that I was facing press conferences like this, and people were saying, “Well, inflation is over 10% and it’s rising”. It’s now 3.7% and it’s fallen again to 3.6%. That is progress, steady, secure progress in the right direction. We’ve now got inflation down to levels it has only touched briefly in the last quarter of a century, and what is different about this is it looks as though this is a secure reduction of underlying inflation that will be sustainable in the future, and the reason I think that is very important is really very clear-cut and very simple. If we have an inflation rate that is higher than the inflation rate of our principal competitors in Europe and beyond, then we will become uncompetitive, we will lose markets, we will lose jobs, we will lose prosperity. If, on the other hand, we have an inflation rate that is better than our principal competitors, then precisely the reverse will apply. We will gain in competitiveness, we will gain markets, we will gain jobs, and we will gain prosperity. I wish it could be done magically and quickly, but it can’t be. It’s a long and a sustained process. I think we’re making the most substantial progress in inflation that we have seen for very many years.

QUESTION:

Can I ask, Prime Minister, on a personal basis, has your personal commitment to the distinctive nature of Scotland been strengthened by this morning’s talks?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. I used the expression, and it was quoted back to me this morning. When I spoke about Europe the other day I made the point about the importance of the Nation State, and that people did not wish to lose the distinctive nature of their Nation. Well, I used that in terms of the European Community as a whole, but it is equally applicable in terms of the United Kingdom, and I see no circumstances in the future where the Scots are not going to remain distinctively Scots, the English distinctively English, the Welsh distinctively Welsh, and the Northern Irish distinctively Northern Irish, and I welcome that. I don’t wish to do anything that would damage the distinctive cultures, natures, traditions, and instincts of the component parts of the United Kingdom. What I do wish to do is to make sure in which we can show the whole of the United Kingdom, that it is a genuine partnership. It isn’t a question of saying “Scotland must stay there with England because that is good for Scotland”. That is not the argument. The point is that if any part of the United Kingdom were not an equal partner within the United Kingdom then every part of the United Kingdom will suffer. That is the point of the argument, and that is what has repeatedly to be made clear.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] from the Independent. You gauged the opinion of 14 people this morning. A constitutional referendum would slightly widen that opinion. Is that an option that you would ever consider at any time?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what I was doing today was gathering thoughts in depth. If you have a referendum of any sort, it asks a single question, and one of the disadvantages of referenda is, you may ask a single question, but the answer may come back for a whole raft of reasons, many perhaps unconnected with the question, and I think that is what people are finding, for example, in the French referendum at the moment. What I am trying to gauge is not the answer to a simple single question. I’m trying to gauge the instincts of people, and what they believe needs to be done to enshrine and secure the distinctiveness of Scotland and its place within the Union.

QUESTION:

Did the spectrum of opinion among those 14, do you think, represent what you wished to find out from them?

PRIME MINISTER:

It was a broad spectrum of opinion, yes. What it was not, what it was emphatically not, was the entrenched political opinions of the political parties. I know that, and I know the opinions, and welcome the opinions that I get from the political parties and from business, but I do know that. I do need to meet distinguished individuals and find out what they need. Lots of other individuals as well. If it were possible to hold in-depth meetings with everyone in Scotland, no doubt I would learn more, but I think one has to draw a line of practicality somewhere.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you’ll be meeting The Queen at Balmoral, and discussing probably the recent events surrounding the Monarchy. How concerned are you about these events, and would you consider a Privacy Bill.

PRIME MINISTER:

I have no doubt about the conviction right across the United Kingdom about the importance of the Monarchy. It is an entrenched, enduring, and valuable part of our way of life. I have absolutely no doubt about that. I’ve nothing to add to that.

QUESTION:

Mr. Ashdown has called for the recall of Parliament - is he likely to get a different answer to the one you gave to Mr. Smith?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven’t seen the letter that I gather Mr. Ashdown has sent to me. I will consider it carefully, but I see no reason to change the decision I made in the past, unless something quite compelling is in Mr. Ashdown’s letter that I don’t expect to find there, but I had better read his letter first.

QUESTION:

He says that British lives could be at risk, and never before he says, have British Service lives been placed at risk without Parliament being first consulted.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I’d better wait for his letter, don’t you, as I’ve just said.

QUESTION:

Please can we go to your proposals - I know you can’t tell us precisely what they’re going to be, but are we right to see them within the parameters of building essentially on the Scottish Grand Committee, and possibly doing something within the Scottish Office, or might they go further than that? Might they be more radical than that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think everyone is looking in individual areas to see what we might do, and I’m not going to speculate, I’m not going to have the proposals that we are beginning to build up, and they’re by no means concluded yet. Eleanor - we’re beginning to build them up as we talk to people. I’m not going to have them picked off one by one as we go through, so I’m going to respond to that when we’ve concluded our consultation.

QUESTION:

Referring to what you said about nationalisation because of one of the questions here is the feeling against water privatisation. Is that something you heard this morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

That came in as a side issue in the discussion in the general question of decentralisation. The point that was actually made about privatisation was a point of substance. If there is to be privatisation, the best way to do it was through the levels of individual shareholding rather than franchising. That was a particular point that was made. That was the way that it came up.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] from the Guardian. You referred to the European Nation State. Scotland, of course, is a Nation but not a State. You’ve ruled out Statehood for Scotland. Is there anything substantial below that which will give the Scots any indication that you’re taking the reform of Government seriously north of the border?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, if I were not taking it seriously north of the border, I wouldn’t be spending as much time on it as I have been doing. I wouldn’t have made the importance of the Union and Scotland’s distinctive role within it an absolutely central part of the General Election campaign. Many people were surprised when I did that and they were surprised of what happened as a result of me doing that. So, I don’t think it is a criticism that is sustainable that I’m not taking it seriously.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, [Inaudible] of The Courier in Dundee, can you make any comment on Scotland’s share of Central Government funding?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I see the stories in the press that appear every year as well but I think you’ll have to wait till the end of the public expenditure round. There are during every public expenditure round a vast amount of rumours, some related to Scotland, some related to individual departments. I think you will have to wait until the PES round is concluded.

QUESTION:

Will you make public what the other regions of the country get?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, it’s all published, yes of course. Of course, there’s a public expenditure White Paper that is published at the end of the round and then there is typically a debate in the House of Commons and all the Budget Heads are published right the way across public expenditure for each component part of the United Kingdom. The answer to your question is, yes.

GUS O’DONNELL:

We have time for two more please.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible], BBC Television. You’ve made much of the principle of subsidiarity in the European argument. How far is that principle exactly the same when applied to Scotland?

PRIME MINISTER:

Subsidiarity relates to devolution of responsibilities. One of the things I think that people really have not taken on board, and this did come up of course in our discussions this morning, was the extent of administrative devolution that actually lies in the hands of the Secretary of State. He has a most remarkable amount of devolution. Now it is perfectly clear, from an opinion poll mentioned to us by one of the participants this morning, that that is not fully appreciated in Scotland. People aren’t aware of the extent of devolution in the Scottish Office and of the responsibilities of the Scottish Office and I don’t suggest that that is an answer to all the matters that we are discussing, but I think in terms of subsidiarity, it is not all that long ago that there was relatively little responsibility devolved from Whitehall to the Secretary of State in Scotland. Over recent years that has built up quite dramatically. There are areas where people would wish to see it extended of course and that is a legitimate part of debate. But, nobody on the subsidiarity principle should underestimate the amount of devolution of administrative responsibility that has gone from Westminster to the Secretary of State in Scotland.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, were you surprised by the views of the poll this morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

There were some very original ideas. I cavil at the word “surprise”. I don’t think I was surprised in that sense but there were some very original thoughts and some very original ideas put forward and - no, I’m not going to - and they were put in an historical content in a number of cases as well and it may be other people will wish to express publicly what they said at this morning’s meeting, that is for them, but I don’t want to put into my words in public what they said to me in private.

QUESTION:

Of the 14 participants, did any openly advocate a Scottish Parliament, Assembly, any such body like that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, all the points were raised in the discussion.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you said earlier that your stand on Unionism had been vindicated by the General Election result. What do you say to the three out of four Scots who did not vote for your Party?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you’re presupposing that all Scotland voted on one issue. And they didn’t. They patently didn’t. They voted on a whole series of different issues. This, as somebody did point out this morning, this is the first occasion for very many years, at the end of a term of Parliament, where the Government in office, whether Conservative or Labour, actually achieved more votes and a better turnout in Scotland at the end of a period of Parliament. We actually achieved that at the end of a fourth parliament. Now, I think that is something that not many people in this room would have anticipated as we came into the Election campaign. Indeed, I know that to be the case, and you know that to be the case, because we discussed that in the run-up to the General Election itself. Now I think, I know as an ex-Treasury Minister, you probably don’t expect me to count well, but there were two more questions and I think we’ve had them. But, we’ll take this last question.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] from The Herald Newspaper. Can I ask how the 14 people were selected, and whether you genuinely think that was a representative cross-section?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ll ask the Secretary of State. I devolved the selection to the Secretary of State. [Laughter].

SECRETARY OF STATE FOR SCOTLAND - IAN LANG:

They weren’t selected in a representative capacity. They were selected for their individual achievement, their distinction in their individual walks of life and they covered a range of walks of life. We had historians, journalists, we had academics, we had businessmen, we had those involved in running Government bodies and working on a range of Government bodies across the whole scene and I believe that the distinction and the quality of the contributions that they made to the discussion this morning vindicated the choice. Indeed, I think their own view about their fellow participants was altogether complimentary.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you all very much indeed. Thank you.

GUS O’DONNELL:

Sorry, must end it there.

PRIME MINISTER:

Otherwise, I shall be very discourteous to Scottish lawyers and the Scottish Church, and I wouldn’t wish to do that. Thank you very much.