County sunk in a slough of despond: The Yeo Affair: What made the loyal Conservatives of South Suffolk turn on their MP? They are anxious, fed up and angry. Cal McCrystal reports
Sunday 09 January 1994
'I say string him up,' volunteered Mary Denton, a single mother who runs Applause Costume Hire in Sudbury. 'I think people have become more sophisticated,' countered Ann Holloway, a grandmother, of Great Woldingfield. 'No one any longer can pass judgement on these matters. I think that's a good thing.' 'He's just a human being,' decided William Pipe, a grandfather, of Sudbury. 'But people are upset. Everyone feels let down.'
Many who condemned their MP did so because his conduct has jeopardised the Conservative Party's prospects in forthcoming elections. On the other hand, many minced their words, fearing that strong language might further affect the party. The people of South Suffolk like to hedge their bets. In the window of one of Long Melford's elegant antique shops, Tim Yeo's face shone benignly from a heart-shaped frame, belying talk of 'double standards' within the shop. The female shopkeeper said: 'This has focused people's minds on morals.'
In the constituency sprawling from the Cambridgeshire border to the sea, morals and 'family values' were not exactly a burning topic before Mr Yeo's difficulties. Yet people say they had been aware of a malaise that, particularly in recent years, was damaging their rural fabric. They often find it hard - perhaps embarrassing - to articulate the causes; to do so may risk blaming the political party of their persistent choice (the Conservative majority was 16,243 in 1987, and 17,289 in 1992).
Among the symptoms of South Suffolk's malaise are the disappearance of village shops and schools, and the sporadic appearance of New Age Travellers, not to mention unemployment and crime, both on the increase. Sudbury (population 22,000, if you include Great Cornard Estate built 20 years ago) has a drugs problem. St Peter's Church, now classified as 'redundant', attracts nightly bunches of teenagers, who congregate on its steps.
In surrounding villages, members of the Women's Institute fear to drive their cars at night, lest they have a breakdown followed by a mugging. 'That's why I carry a mobile phone,' said Mrs Holloway, press officer of the local WI.
In Sudbury on Thursday, even the bustling open market could not eclipse the dejection of the boarded-up shops. 'The open nature of the town makes the impact of empty shops even worse,' said John McMillan, a computer software merchant who has seen three close friends go bankrupt. High rents and rates forced a local hardware store to close the other day. Over the past three months, Mr McMillan said, 'a cluster' of family businesses ceased trading. Surviving businesses are frantic about the likely impact of a new Tesco supermarket planned on the A314, skirting the town. Three silk mills in the constituency are doing well, but Lucas Diesel Systems, one of the area's largest engineering companies, has cut its workforce from 3,000 to 1,000.
It is against this background that the Tory share of town council seats has shrunk from 80 per cent to 20 per cent in the past three years. One swiftly grasps what Mr McMillan means by 'a high degree of despondency' among businessmen, many of whom have taken out on Tim Yeo their disenchantment with the Government.
Three years ago, according to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, Mr Yeo's constituency had the highest proportion of owner- occupied accommodation in the county (74.2 per cent) and the highest proportion of household amenities, such as bath/shower and indoor lavatory. Even with much of London's population overspill moving in over the past two decades, South Suffolk had escaped racial disharmony (99.2 per cent of the population is white, compared with 94 per cent in Britain as a whole). In some parts of the constituency, 56 per cent of households had the use of a car, compared with 25 per cent in Suffolk as a whole. Until the recession struck, South Suffolk seemed to be the epitome of what J K Galbraith dubbed the 'culture of contentment', almost living up to its pre-Industrial Revolution reputation as the most prosperous area in the nation.
There is evidence of that early wealth: mansions built by prosperous wool merchants; massive churches, many of them now 'redundant'. Tradition lives also in the peculiar pink wash with which people decorate their houses. But although antique shops report a lift in trade, tradition buys little bread. This part of Britain got left behind in the Industrial Revolution and fears it is being left behind again. 'East Anglia was the first region into the recession and the only one currently showing no signs of recovery,' Mr McMillan said.
Understandably, the locals feel betrayed. 'We've been crapped on from a great height,' said a man leaving a pub in Mr Yeo's home village of East Bergholt (and where the MP had a cosy drink a few days before his downfall). 'We haven't had anything like this since last summer when a sewage tanker went out of control at the Masonic Hall on Sudbury Road and spilled 3,000 gallons of human excrement all over the place. The stench spread miles around.'
What does all this despondency do for 'basics' and 'family values' in South Suffolk?
In Great Woldingfield, Mrs Holloway was joined for coffee by two other Women's Institute colleagues on the morning of Mr Yeo's resignation. According to all three, family values were undermined by 'withdrawal of facilities' - railways and buses - and the closure of village schools. 'You have to go many miles to collect prescriptions,' said June D'Cruze, from nearby Glemsford.
Reminded that John Major's predecessor had claimed there was no such thing as society, Mrs Holloway thought deeply and said: 'There is community. It's stronger in the villages than in the towns. But vandalism is on the increase, and so is graffiti, though people are still polite to one another.' Her friend, Dorothy Coady, an elderly divorcee who moved to Lavenham after leaving Ian Smith's Rhodesia, said: 'Farm tractors still pull in to let a line of cars pass.'
Mrs D'Cruze: 'Young women don't mean to be rude. They're shy.'
Mrs Holloway: 'There are broken families - same as ever.'
Mrs D'Cruze: 'Though standards have gone down.'
Mrs Holloway: 'What's needed is low-cost housing, instead of executive-type with brass knockers, so that young families don't have to move away and they don't have to close the schools.'
Mrs Coady: 'The whole county is under threat by newcomers.'
None of the three women was a dedicated churchgoer. 'It's not that I don't believe. It's just that they shut you out at my local church - partly for party political reasons,' said Mrs D'Cruze, hinting she might not be a Conservative voter. Did they not consider that religious beliefs were essential to 'family values'? Mrs Holloway, a Quaker, did not respond directly. 'It used to be that children obeyed their parents,' she said. 'Now it's the other way round.' Mrs D'Cruze recalled her astonishment when a seven- year-old acquaintance reported: 'My mum doesn't want any more children, and she won't have one either, unless she and my dad have some sort of accident.'
The only other family value they considered noteworthy was young people's insistence on fully furnished accommodation on getting married: 'Instead of building the nest over the years as they can afford it, the way we had to do. That gets them into enormous debt and puts a strain on the family.'
As secretary of the Salvation Army in Sudbury, William Pipe, 77, has noted that morals are 'much looser', but that hard times are driving some people to prayer - or at least into the solidarity of religious worship. Five years ago, an average of 25 turned up at the Army's Sunday evening meetings; now the figure has doubled. 'Family values have changed, but not necessarily because of the way we live now. It goes back to the Second World War when young men went abroad to fight and young women left the home to join the Land Army and the Forces. They experienced freedom they never had before. That's when the liaisons started. Matters have not improved. But I'd still say this is a good place to raise children.'
Few locals claim to have seen their MP before his disgrace. In Long Melford, a bookshop owner said: 'I only met him once. I took against him immediately. He seemed to think he'd all the answers. Maybe he can't help it, but I've seldom seen such arrogance.'
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