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The price we must pay for political ambition

Friday 20 June 2003

With great reluctance, our countryside commentator John Sheard turns again to politics - and asks whether North Yorkshire must be sacrificed to political vanity

John Prescott

TIME and time again I have pledged in this column to ignore politics and concentrate on the good things in country life. Time and time again this wish as been thwarted because political issues - like FMD and many more - raise their ugly heads and to ignore them would be to live in a dream world.

And this week, such an issue has come up which, arguably, could be the most dangerous threat to our way of life in the Yorkshire Dales in decades. And, as far as I can tell, it is all down to political ambition.

All politicians, you see, yearn to leave their mark on history. Few achieve even a footnote and, deservedly in most cases, are forgotten within a few years of leaving office.

But there are some in the present Government with its huge majority who seem willing to ignore the demands of vast majority of the people in order to get their footnote.

At this very minute, we are about to sign up to a new European constitution opposed by some 70% of the population which will give us a President of Europe. And guess who is favourite for that first post according to the commentators? Our very own Tony Blair. And we won't get a referendum to give our yeah or nay.

However, much, much closer to home, we are going to have a referendum on whether or not we want a regional assembly - or mini-parliament - for Yorkshire. Why? Because John Prescott wants one.

Although less than 1,000 people and organisations out of five million people asked for such a vote, we are pressing ahead to achieve what Prescott, MP for Hull East, has admitted to have been his dream for 20 years or more.

For the people of North Yorkshire, this dream is doomed to become a nightmare. Our county council and district councils will be abolished - although, strangely, the Government is trying to strengthen parish councils - and our vote in a regional parliament will be swamped by representatives from the towns and big cities in south and west Yorkshire.

Now John Prescott's career has, to say the least, lurched from disaster to disaster for years. He is almost a comic figure. But smile as we may, we must remember that he has already done Dales folk one dire injury.

His very first action, when Labour came to power, was the halt the building of bypasses on the A65 between Skipton and Kendal. Work was about to begin and those bypasses would be in use now, saving the local villagers years of noise, pollution and danger.

The reason, he said, was to get more people on public transport. That was before the railways started killing people, another disaster on his watch.

But there are even more sinister reasons for dreading a regional parliament and these, I'm afraid, are straight party political. Prescott knows that such a body would always be dominated by the Labour Party, whatever the colour of the administration in Westminster.

Nine-tenths of its voters would come from the cities and towns, many of which are suffering huge social distress because of the collapse of traditional industries. So whatever the nation as a whole wants, its biggest county would always be a bright red bastion. And un-challenged power corrupts: witness the scandals in Doncaster over the years.

Many readers, I am sure, think that this dire forecast will never happen: no-one except local politicians looking for even more soft jobs would vote for another layer of government, with all the cost and red tape that would create.

But there's the rub: if, as already forecast, very few people would take part in a referendum, the pro-assembly zealots could get their way with just a few thousand votes. And make no mistake, they will be organising now.

Our only hope in North Yorkshire of depriving John Prescott of his footnote in history is to start organising too so that, when the vote comes, we all turn out to deliver a resounding No. Otherwise, we country folk will become that forgotten footnote.

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