I recently had the pleasure of writing an article for the Saffron Walden Historical Journal about my 40 years in Parliament. The Journal, available in Harts Bookshop, Waitrose, the Tourist Information Centre and the museum in Saffron Walden, retails at £3 and is compiled by the town's Historical Society. Below are a selection of excerpts from my article, and I encourage anyone with an interest in the history of their hometown to purchase the Journal.
The constituency I represented in Parliament for nigh on 40 years is one of the geographically largest in Essex. No matter how its boundaries have been drawn from time to time it has taken its name from the ancient borough of Saffron Walden. This is highly misleading, but every proposal to change it has - quite rightly in my opinion - failed. Tradition has triumphed.
In a constituency covering several hundred square miles a lot of travelling is involved. There is no easy or convenient way of reaching out to all communities otherwise than by regular visits. A local newspaper or radio station embracing the constituency as a whole does not exist. To be seen on regional television you were competing with over 50 other MPs. So it was possible to fulfil a string of engagements over a weekend without the majority of constituents knowing you had been in the constituency at all. Yet what has been noticeable over a 40-year span is the extent to which constituency involvement has grown from the (not so far off) days when an annual visit would suffice!
Constituency size is a further complication when trying to represent faithfully and accurately the views and concerns of your electors. The biggest issue by far year by year has been Stansted Airport. By a very emphatic margin the residents of Uttlesford were opposed to its development. This could not be said of the people of Braintree nor more recently people living in the Chelmsford part of the constituency. Unity among those opposing the airport would then itself shatter when it came to the positioning of flightpaths as each village sought protection from noise disturbance.
Rail passengers in one part of the constituency were concerned solely with the Great Eastern line into Liverpool Street, whilst others were more bothered by the problems on the West Anglia line which served the seven stations they regularly used. Both lines competed for improvements whilst there were also demands for a line running east to Braintree.
The same difficulty rose in respect of roads. The old (now reclassified) A11, A130 and A604, the A12, A120 and M11 all deserved attention and potholes are potholes wherever they are, even on the most minor of roads. Despite being the victim myself of potholes on four occasions, I have to say that my greatest frustration has been over the failure to upgrade the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey. I was told very firmly 40 years ago that the A120/M11 link was one of the two planned strategic routes connecting the East Coast ports to the Midlands and the North. It took long enough to obtain the upgrading of this road between the M11 and Braintree, but still the link remains incomplete.
Which is better, town or country, is a question that provokes unending debate. Having spent more than half my life in the countryside, I am in no doubt about its advantages. However, as the local MP I was constantly aware of pockets of rural deprivation that expressed itself in many forms: loss of local shops, pubs, banks and places of entertainment; scarcity of transport; uneven access to a full range of public services; and, more recently, inadequate provision of mobile telephony and broadband. Far from knowing nothing about the 'real world', as is sometimes alleged, MPs are by the very nature of their work in daily contact with a vast range of human need and suffering. It is the most humbling of experiences.