Election '97: Farmyard bleatings sour Ashdown circle

Barrie Clement on Devon's rustic welcome for a pro-European
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The Independent Online
Never work with children or animals. Paddy Ashdown clearly refuses to accept the dictum.

Last week, at a farm in the Scottish Borders, he was persuaded to make sheep noises to make a lamb feel at ease.

Undaunted by the sarcasm that this provoked, he attempted yesterday to hold forth on the subject of Europe in the middle of a cattle market at Hatherleigh in Devon.

The Europhobe farmers had doubtless enlisted the quadrupeds to heckle the Liberal Democrat leader by making parliamentary noises in the background.

Some of his more telling points were drowned out by disapproving grunts, bleatings and mooings.

This was another of Mr Ashdown's "open circles" - meetings on a particular issue to which experts and practitioners of all opinions are invited.

The meeting and an energetic walkabout in the market served to remind the party leader that potential supporters in key rural constituencies do not necessarily share the party's enthusiasm for Europe.

Torridge and West Devon is held by Emma Nicholson who defected from the Tories but is standing down.

The seat is now being fought by John Burnett, who came a close second to Ms Nicholson last time. The Liberal Democrats would take the redrawn constituency on an estimated swing of 2.7 per cent. At the open circle Mr Ashdown was made aware of strong resistance to all things European.

The Euro-scepticism was not confined to the farming community. The Liberal Democrats are generally considered to have a large anti-Brussels contingent among those who vote for them.

And during yesterday's visit to the West Country, Mr Ashdown went to support Nick Harvey, the MP for North Devon, who is considered to harbour the most Europhobe notions in the parliamentary party, along with Liz Lynne, the MP for Rochdale.

In Hatherleigh the open circle seemed to be closed to at least two Europhobe farmers, one of whom was prevented from entering the discussion.

As Mr Ashdown battled manfully against an inadequate public address system and strongly Europhobe cattle, a rubicund Bernard Parkhouse declared his bitter opposition to Brussels.

In stage whispers Mr Parkhouse, a 76-year-old farmer, said: "What is the point in taxpayers paying the salaries of all those MPs if we are ruled from Europe?"

Accosted by Mr Parkhouse, the Liberal Democrat leader promised to get back to him at the end of the meeting. But he never did.

Said Mr Parkhouse: "He wouldn't let me speak with him [sic]."

Mr Harvey voted against Maastricht in the House of Commons and yesterday confirmed his opposition to the single European currency, even though his leader and his party are well disposed towards it provided it is endorsed in a national referendum.

Together with Ms Lynne, Mr Harvey has had the distinction of endorsement by the virulently anti-European Referendum Party.

Sir James Goldsmith, the party leader, has decided not to put up a candidate against Mr Harvey and suggested that electors in the north Devon constituency should vote Liberal Democrat.