Commonwealth Games: Baton handover comes to a halt in Hertfordshire

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The Independent Online

Earlier this week, Canada's former Olympic 100 metres champion Donovan Bailey was pictured on the steps of Parliament House in Ottawa holding up something which looked like a silver Indian club.

It was, in fact, the Queen's Jubilee Baton, containing her opening message to the Commonwealth Games that will begin in Manchester on 25 July.

In what is being "dubbed the longest relay in history", which presumably means it is the longest relay in history, runners will carry the Baton 64,000 miles across five continents, taking in 24 Commonwealth countries, including a 50-day tour of the British Isles.

But the thing is, there has been a bit of a hitch. With the itinerary. The problem has emerged not in Canada, or Jamaica, or Barbados, or Dominica, or St Lucia, or Trinidad and Tobago, or Ghana, or Nigeria, or Kenya, or Uganda, or Tanzania, or South Africa, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Fiji, or Tonga, or Brunei, or Malaysia, or Singapore, or Sri Lanka, or India, or Malta, or even Sierra Leone.

The problem has emerged – have you guessed it already? – in Hertford. You see, what the Tory executive on East Herts District Council has very smartly recognised, something which seems to have escaped the rest of the Commonwealth, is that this Baton business could be inconvenient, and what's more, it may not even afford the opportunity of making money.

Let's be specific here. What is being asked of the District Council, apparently without so much as a by-your-leave from the Queen, is that they allow the Baton runner to arrive in Hertfordshire's county town on 28 June, stop off for lunch at a local school, and then journey on towards Luton.

If I add that the runner may be accompanied by up to 12 vehicles, and that traders along the route have been told not to plug their products for the benefit of passing BBC TV cameras, I think the position becomes, as my old headmaster would have said, crystal clear. Especially when one considers the obligation on the District Council not to hold fund-raising activities to cash in on the event.

"I have grave reservations," councillor Bob Parker (Bishop's Stortford South) said. "We are being asked to be paymasters of a lunch venue for a baton run which is going to cause a great deal of upheaval. I can't see that there is any benefit for the district."

The Council leader Mike Carver (Much Hadham) commented: "It seems to be determined that we are going to be the authority in whose district this is going to happen, without even being asked. I am greatly concerned that ordinary people going about their everyday lives might be inconvenienced by the rules and regulations they are coming up with."

Speaking as one of those ordinary people going about their everyday business in East Herts, I have to be grateful for the vigilance of my elected representatives in identifying the insidiously harmful potentialities of this "celebration".

Sadly it seems that some of our most revered sporting figures have failed to spot the lurking dangers of the enterprise.

"The Queen's Jubilee Baton Relay is a fitting tribute to the unsung heroes in our communities," Ian Botham says. "This is their moment to shine."

"The Relay will bring positive attention to this great competition and also hopefully inspire the young people who take part to become involved in sport and the Games, now and in the future," Mary Peters says.

"Everybody who runs is a vital cog in the relay wheel, whether they take part at the beginning, the middle or the end," Sir Steven Redgrave says.

These people have been around and seen a bit of life. You might have expected better of them. But there we are.

I can only trust that when East Herts councillors make their final decision on the matter this Tuesday, they will act appropriately.

This week's Hertfordshire Mercury newspaper carries what I consider to be a cartoon in poor taste on its front page, depicting a delegation of council officials turning the Baton runner away from Hertford in front of the BBC cameras. It's so easy to mock, isn't it?

But I don't want you to go away thinking that this admittedly distressing affair is without any redeeming features. Because, after the most recent East Herts meeting, Hertford Castle's Labour councillor Colin Harris indicated the strength of feeling that now binds council members of both the left and right on this question.

"I suggest we advise the Relay to keep out," he said. "We should say we cannot accommodate them because we are very poor and we have no resources. I would tell them to carry on down the A1 and not to come into East Herts at all."

At times like this, it's good to see the big issues bringing politicians together.