Scottish independence: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says Scots could have had a Scottish Parliament years earlier if they had shown more passion
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But he said the public "desire" for devolution never became a "demand" which could not be ignored.
Sir Malcolm, who was MP for Edinburgh Pentlands from 1974 until 1997, served as a minister throughout the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major governments, including spells as Scottish Secretary, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary.
Responding to questions after he had delivered a special lecture at Edinburgh University, he said: "Throughout these 18 years we were told constantly, and I don't necessarily disagree with this, that a majority of people in Scotland wanted devolution and neither Margaret Thatcher's government nor John Major's government were prepared to concede that. It's an interesting question: how did we get away with that?
"There was an option that would have made it inevitable that an assembly or a parliament would be conceded. Imagine if every weekend there had been 300,000 people marching in Edinburgh, another 300,000 in Glasgow, 200,000 in Aberdeen, 100,000 in Dundee peacefully demanding devolution. Do you think the government of the day could have just ignored that? But it never happened.
"What it demonstrated was that, although when people were asked there was a desire for a Scottish parliament, there wasn't a demand. It was not sufficiently high in people's priorities to make it an absolute requirement."
Sir Malcolm added: "I think that's where we are now. We are told half the population wants independence – well it depends what you mean by 'wants'. Politics is very rarely passionate – even Scottish politics."
The Scottish Parliament was created by Labour after Tony Blair’s landslide victory swept John Major and the Tories from power in 1997.
Sir Malcolm said as a member of the Thatcher/Major governments he had supported the government policy which was against devolution, even though he had previously voted against the party and in favour of a Scottish parliament.
"My support for devolution in those years was from the head not from the heart. It wasn't an emotional desire – 'We are Scots, we must have a Scottish parliament'."
It was rather, he said, a belief that given Scotland's separate legal and administrative system, a Scottish body in charge of it would deliver higher quality.
But he said: "I was very surprised during the period of the Thatcher/Major government that what was said to be the desire of Scotland was never expressed as a demand. If it had been, frankly in my judgement, it would have had to be conceded because that's the sort of country we are."