Politicians have a job on their hands to win back the trust of voters after the expenses scandal.
Chris Huhne’s conviction for persuading his wife to claim she was at the wheel when his car was caught speeding on the M11 didn’t help.
Then there are the Lib Dem and police inquiries into allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by Lord Rennard, that are said to have blighted the political careers of some promising female candidates.
And I’ve watched with some horror, but also some understanding of the frustrations of electors, the growing protest vote for Ukip, a party defined like the National Front and BNP by what it hates and fears rather than what it cherishes and supports.
So it was with genuine pleasure that I read on Rory Stewart’s blog about Cumbria Day at Westminster in which all six of the county’s MPs recently put party difference to one side to support a showcase for local businesses.
These ranged from Cranstons, purveyors of fine food and meat since 1914 (that’s the Cumberland sausage and pies sorted) through a trio of small breweries (Ulverston, Hard Knott and Coniston to wash them down) to the Lake District Cheese Company, Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company, New Balance Trainers and Stobart Air. Tourism, a key local industry, was also well represented.
Stewart, who is Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, said: “It has been a wonderful opportunity for all MPs to work together on a cross-party basis for a county we all love. It has put Cumbria, its products and our beautiful landscape in a much-needed spotlight.”
His belief that there should be more cross-party work was echoed by the other MPs, representing a part of Britain where the Boundary Commission recently defied common sense and geography in its proposal to cut the number of constituencies.
The attention – and even the prime minister popped in – was much needed because one of the first acts of the Coalition was to wind up the North West Development Agency in the public spending cuts and snatch away vital funding for projects such as the £100m Barrow marina village, now being kept on life support by £3.25m of capital spending from the borough council.
The government’s meager replacement appears to be £900,000 from the Big Lottery and Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government under the Coastal Communities Fund grant scheme.
I sense on my visits north that there’s a growing belief that if you want something done, you’d better do it yourself, if only because the siren voice of London mayor Boris Johnson is heard more loudly at Westminster.
Faster, faster broadband
Stewart’s support for trying to make something of the Big Society in the Eden Valley and in particular his campaigning for rural high speed broadband have found echoes in Arkholme, to the south in Lancashire, where residents are laying their own fibre network rather than wait for BT’s engineers.
In Rails in the Fells (Peco, 1973), David Jenkinson writes about the Settle and Carlisle Railway, then under threat of closure after escaping the axe in 1963 under the Beeching Plan. He points to the irony of the entrepreneurial Midland Railway providing a local service as an accident of building a through route to Scotland, while its state-owned successor sought to justify closure despite the hardships it threatened to bring rural communities with little alternative public transport.
Today, Cumbria’s people and MPs share a can-do attitude that puts the government and BT to shame for past failure to invest in today’s equivalent of the Victorian railways. Remember all that talk of the information superhighway and its power to transform the economy.
Now, even the Connecting Cumbria project will justify its success when:
- At least 90% of properties in Cumbria have access to a connection of at least 25 megabits per second by 2015;
- Where a 25mbps connection is not available, access to an internet connection of at least 2Mbps.
Hardly ambitious by, say, South Korean standards, where the average peak connection is a reported 48.8Mbps. You can see why Cumbria’s MPs feel the need to work together to have the county’s voice heard in the corridors of power.