I am fighting for King and county

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The Independent Online
When people and places change their names, it makes us worry about them. I felt less secure about John (Selwyn) Gummer when he changed his, and I hope that now he is Secretary of State for the Environment he won't force the county I live in to change its handle more than it must.

Last month, Hereford and Worcester County Council decided it should de-merge. A robust council press officer tells me that when, in the Seventies, the two old shire counties were considering a merger, they toyed with the name of Wyvern, but that was already the crime-ridden fictional Midlands county in Softly, Softly; so the new body retained a decent continuity with older identities.

Identity? How we are plagued with working out what that might be, especially since the Local Government Commission deliberates, case by case, what should become of grass-roots democracy and the units in which it should work] Hereford has a stronger claim than most to a personality. It has black-and- white houses, red-and-white cows. They are intermingled - at least for now - with tall apple trees and hop poles.

The county is also inaccessible, but is part of world culture. A sign of this seeming contradiction could be had in Hereford Leisure Centre the other Friday. Tammy Wynette, whose marriages (five) are nearly as numerous as her grandchildren (seven), told the sisters to stand by their men. The shimmering Barbie doll was well received.

Her audience included men down from the hills. Their cheeks' bright redness testified to the coldness of farm dawns. They wore tweeds that looked as tough and wiry as briar hedges.

Herefordshire is a smallish county with a smallish population: its 170,000 souls put it at the bottom of the scale that Whitehall reckons is needed for anything like self-government. Next year, we must all decide whether we want to be run by County Hall or some new arrangement of district councils.

Then we must persuade Mr Gummer that our view - whatever it is - is right. We are bound to suspect that he is not on the side of feisty local power-bases, and therefore may most dislike what serves us best.

For the provision of most services, the county might as well rule. For a start, it already exists, and has done for centuries; it spends 90 per cent of the money raised in local taxation; it is in charge of most of the things we worry about, from rubbish dumps to libraries.

Also, it is a unit of government that enshrines a regional sense. President Jordi Pujol of Catalonia says the English counties should fight for their survival, and he gave a witty speech to that effect when he came to London a recently to give ministers a bloody nose for what he thinks is their systematic weakening of local government. He runs Spain's most successful region and has done time for its cause. Madrid has reason to rue Barcelona's reluctance to throw money at the central state.

President Pujol is also a leading light in the European regional movement, which - virtually unnoticed - has been given definite (if weak) status in the Maastricht Treaty. Of course, the British regions (all those Celtic fringes, and we West Midlanders) fancy these new ideas. The regionalists see a way of going round the back of their national governments (which they distrust). And they see bottomless pork barrels to scrape.

There is genuine strength in the idea of regionalism. The West Midlands, for instance, has the nation's second city. In the sub-region of the Marches, the border country of Shropshire and Hereford, we have the sort of uncertain territory (neither Wales nor England) that produces the best (semi-military) domestic architecture. Our county is in large part a product of the difficult landscape that formed it. We have the men who like Tammy, the Queen of Country. Welcome to her land and music: the boondocks and their universal blues.

Perhaps best of all, we have Shakespeare, King of the Midlands and Britain's leading contributor to world culture. The Royal Shakespeare Company - as evidenced by Robert Stephens' Lear - turns out world-class productions. The show was staged with the glamour and clamour of a Star Trek VI in full Sensurround, and was, really, rather vulgar.

Good: half the people who come to Stratford need a strong audio-visual show, since they can't understand a word that's being said. Shakespeare is the region's most powerful global brand: we wouldn't thank the RSC if it failed in populism or failed the Japanese - or anyone else - on their pilgrimage out of cultural isolation and into the wider world of the shared human spirit.

As a monoglot, I am pleased that English is such a huge success, and mildly glad that Catalonia is beginning to get some stick for its linguistic isolationism. Certainly, as the region that gave English great chunks of its best phraseology, the West Midlands does not have to apologise for not having its own regional tongue.

President Pujol might not agree with some of this. He certainly thinks his language very important. Asked whether he thought Scotland's sense of identity, perhaps bound up with sport, was quite what it might be, he said something to the effect that it was better to have a strong language than a weak football team. Amusing and canny: I'd say the President bids fair to be an important Catalan export.