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Revealed: the truth about Michael Forsyth, the Tories and devolution

THE last Scottish Secretary in John Major's Conservative government privately conceded that voters "wanted" devolution and claimed the administration's constitutional policy was failing.

Michael Forsyth's private scepticism about the Government approach was borne out in the disastrous 1997 electionPhotograph: PA/Empics
Michael Forsyth's private scepticism about the Government approach was borne out in the disastrous 1997 electionPhotograph: PA/Empics

According to files just released from the National Records of Scotland, Michael Forsyth added that the then government's alternative approach to devolution was "making the problem worse".

Major was firmly against the creation of a parliament in Edinburgh, but believed he had to implement reforms to improve the governance of Scotland.

His post-1992 policies, under the umbrella of "Taking Stock", included a beefed-up role for the Scottish Grand Committee, a body for MPs north of the Border at which they could grill ministers. However, by 1995, opinion polls continued to show support for home rule. The anti-devolutionist Forsyth was appointed in July of that year.

Within weeks, he and leading Scottish Office officials met to discuss the government's constitutional strategy.

Although Whitehall mandarins were pleased with Taking Stock, the minutes of the meeting show Forsyth took the opposite view: "The Secretary of State noted that one of the big problems with the government's position was that it was perceived to be based on the status quo and to be telling people that they could not have an Assembly.

"Consequently people wanted it and there was a general feeling of 'we was robbed' and that not enough account was being taken of our way of life."

It continued: "He [Forsyth] did not think that Taking Stock worked. The proponents of devolution had accepted everything in it but still wanted more.

"There was a fundamental problem with the approach in Taking Stock and administrative devolution in general, in that it led to less scrutiny at Westminster and more work for the Secretary of State and his ministers. In a way, Taking Stock was making the problem worse."

In office, Forsyth focused on the tax ramifications of Labour's devolution policy. However, his private scepticism about the government's approach was later borne out: in 1997, the Tories were hammered at the General Election and left without a single Scottish seat. Months later, in the referendum, voters backed a devolved parliament with tax-varying powers.

SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing said yesterday: "These files simply reinforce what we already know - Westminster can't be trusted with Scotland's future. Michael Forsyth recognised that the will of the people of Scotland was for a Scottish Parliament, yet he continued to tell people we could not have it.

"And we know from history that promises for better devolution and more powers in return for a No vote are quickly forgotten about, which is why a Yes vote this year is vital. All Scotland got after the 1979 referendum was 18 years of Tory government we didn't vote for."

l Files also show that Forsyth was keen to control raves in Scotland.

As proposals for a licensing regime were being discussed, a memo noted: "The Secretary of State enquired whether there were any other non-controversial measures to do with raves which could be included."

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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