Wales discovers its English fans

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Indy Politics
Things are bad in the principality. Nursery school pupils inhabit prefabricated classrooms which cover the playing-fields of Rhymney, mental patients roam Abertillery, residential homes are being closed from one end of Rhondda-Cynon-Taff to the other. Wales is a scene of almost biblical desolation after 17 years of neglect and despoliation. Thus spake the 20-plus Welsh Labour MPs yesterday, in their "questions" to the Secretary of State for Wales.

But the decidedly non-Welsh Conservative MPs who were also present had a strangely conflicting view of life west of the Severn. In their Wales, investment has reached record levels, new bridges and factories dot a landscape populated by well educated and highly subsidised entrepreneurs, more patients are treated than ever - often before they know they are ill. The only bridge between these two worlds, Mr Michael Fabricant (a born adventurer who often travels all the way to Wales), could shed no light on this strange dichotomy.

He was concerned instead to have the existing bilingual road signs replaced with multi-coloured ones - presumably so that he can tell when he has crossed the border. So we were left with the odd situation where those that actually live in Wales told us what a dump it was, and those who represent seats in suburban north-west London portrayed the far-off land as a paradise - Eden with Koreans.

This may well explain a difference in opinions about what to make of asylum-seekers. Labour finds it hard to believe that anybody would come to this country unless forced to on pain of direst persecution. After all, they might end up in Wales. Tories know any foreign spiv worth his salt will make a beeline for the honey pots of Britain.

Thus the Government is busy erecting a barrier of stupendous proportions to prevent "bogus asylum-seekers" from staying here. And attracting a great deal of criticism from the bishops for so doing. Allied to the bishops are certain liberal Conservative backbenchers of distinctly episcopal mien: the lean and ascetic, evangelical Peter Bottomley, and the more bulky High Church MP for Staffordshire South, Sir Patrick Cormack.

Yesterday they came together with the grave Jack Straw and the saintly Liberal Democrat, David Alton, to try to shake the rock that is Ann Widdecombe, Home Office minister.

But Ms Widdecombe is not easily shaken. Her centre of gravity is low and her resolve enormous. A devout and recently converted Catholic, she is the embodiment of muscular Christianity. It is not that she is unsympathetic to the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. Indeed, she prays for them. It is rather that she is far more worried by the work-shy, the fraudulent and the criminal.

With great efficiency, she dismissed amendment after amendment from those worried that genuine asylum-seekers might suffer from the Government's changes. As with Wales, it's all a matter of perception.

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