Christopher Booker's Notebook
Sorry, Mr Gummer, you've been rumbled Prescott's way with figures Battle for Malta is not yet lost Wiped off the map
Readers of Country Life might have been startled by a bitter assault on this newspaper by "Agromenes, Our Country Crusader". "The Sunday Telegraph," it began, "never does much to support the real countryside", but it had "recently scraped even its barrel" by publishing an attack on the inadequacies of Ben Gill, the president of the National Farmers' Union.
It was "funny", the columnist went on, in a wonderfully dotty outburst, "how a newspaper that wants Britain cosying up to the US, right or wrong, is keen on direct and offensive action when it comes to our own Government and civil servants".
Quite how the president of the NFU could be regarded as a civil servant was not entirely clear. But what had aroused the ire of the "Country Crusader" was an article in this newspaper on February 16 by Oliver Walston, a farmer. This trenchantly made the point that, thanks not least to Mr Gill's closeness to Government, the NFU had consistently failed to represent the interests of farmers through the worst years British agriculture has ever faced.
Mr Walston went on to echo what almost every farmer knows, that there is something seriously amiss with the strangely undemocratic system by which Mr Gill and the NFU hierarchy manage to perpetuate their hold on office, so that they can be described by the media as "farmers' leaders" when their organisation represents only one third of the farmers in this country.
Country Life readers might be even more surprised, however, to learn the identity of Mr Gill's outspoken defender. Hiding behind the pseudonym "Agromenes" is none other than John Selwyn Gummer, who as Minister of Agriculture between 1989 and 1993 was responsible for an endless succession of disasters for Britain's countryside.
Week after week in those years I exposed the sanctimonious way in which Mr Gummer was enthusiastically presiding over the wholesale destruction of our abattoirs, small egg-producers, beekeepers, fishermen and heaven knows what else. It was he who introduced the greatest avalanche of bureaucracy and paperwork that farming has ever known, as part of the "reform" of the Common Agricultural Policy. It was he, more than any other minister, who endorsed the cover-up of the fearful damage inflicted on thousands of sheep farmers, after his ministry had compelled them to use highly-dangerous organo-phosphorus sheep dips.
It might seem strangely timely that Mr Gummer's vengeful pseudonymous outburst against The Sunday Telegraph should coincide with the publication this month of an excoriatory report by the Public Accounts Committee on the present Government's mishandling of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis. Ben Gill and the NFU played their full part in that, by acting as cheerleaders for the Government's illegal "pre-emptive cull" policy and as opponents of a vaccination programme that might have saved nine million healthy animals from destruction. But the MPs, under the chairmanship of Edward Leigh, picked up in particular a point repeatedly made in this column (and by no other newspaper), that the most serious failing of all was the total inadequacy of the Government's contingency plan.
This is curiously apt, because the minister who presented that shamefully-inadequate contingency plan for approval by the European Commission in 1992 was none other than John Selwyn Gummer, "Our Country Crusader".
John Prescott's campaign to set up elected governments in the eight "Euro-regions" of England becomes ever more "Soviet". Mr Prescott tells us that there is "a hunger for regional government" and, as evidence, he recently assured the Commons that: "In the south-west the indications are that well over 60 per cent want to have a referendum on the issue."
Typical of the way Mr Prescott arrived at this evidence was a recent "soundings" meeting advertised in Weymouth by the South West Constitutional Convention, one of eight identical front organisations set up to campaign for elected regional governments - five of which, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, are chaired by Church of England bishops. On the appointed evening, the tiny Labour Club in Weymouth was besieged by campaigners against a regional assembly, who were initially told that only those who had signed a paper in favour of an assembly would be admitted.
When some were eventually allowed in, outnumbering the pro-assembly faction by eight to one, Tim Pearce, the convention's national organiser, ruled that only those who had already pledged support for an assembly could vote. After the motion had, not surprisingly, been won, there was discussion of the response to 550 "soundings" forms, which had been sent by the convention to those who had registered interest in a referendum.
Of these, it emerged, only 71 had been returned. Only eight recorded "strong" or "very strong" support for a referendum. The remaining 63 expressed either "weak interest" or none. Thus, even of those expressing interest, barely one per cent had been strongly in favour.
Elsewhere, the East Midlands Assembly last week voted against an elected regional government and Lancashire County Council, after reading here that district auditors were investigating claims that the North East Assembly had made unlawful use of ratepayers' money by campaigning for an assembly withdrew its funding from the assembly.
Despite much crowing from Brussels that Malta had voted to join the EU in last weekend's referendum, the fat lady has not yet sung. Because the "yes" vote did not register the required 50 per cent plus of the total electorate, Malta is to have a general election on April 12. This may well be won by the Labour Party, which is pledged not to sign the 5,500-page joint accession treaty, by which Brussels hopes 10 applicant countries will become EU members next year.
What made the closeness of Malta's vote (54 per cent to 46) surprising was the imbalance in spending by the two sides. Compared with the peanuts available to the "No" campaign, the European Commission and Malta's government have in recent years spent an estimated #5 million on persuading the Maltese of the wonders of EU membership, or about #16 for each of the island's 300,000 voters. In British population terms this would equate to #400 million: more than the total spent by all parties in all the elections in our own history put together. It would be nice to think on April 12 that it had all been spent in vain.
The Government's war against Britain's parishes continues. Parish boundaries and churches are to be removed from Britain's Ordnance Survey maps, MPs were told last week by the local government minister Tom McNulty, to show ramblers which areas they are free to walk over under the new "right to roam" laws. The minister explained that there was insufficient space on maps to include both parish boundaries and information required under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.
This follows the row over the new Code of Conduct for parish councillors, first reported in this column. Five hundred parish councils have now been disbanded because councillors objected to having to declare any gift worth more than #25, including being taken out to a meal by friends.