One of the joys of spending Christmas with good friends in England is to be immersed in a generous hospitality and a flair for celebrating Christmas that the Scots could well learn from. But it is also an opportunity to experience a rather different culture than I’m used to. It’s not just differences with things Scots but it’s a rural culture (1.6 people/hectare) of huntin’/fishin’/shootin’, despite the presence of the Fine City of Norwich (pop: 190,000). And it forms something we see little of in Scotland these days: Conservative heartland.
In some ways, it does resemble other Tory heartlands like Surrey, where only the odd Lib-Dem orange blob disturbs a tranquil sea of blue and upstarts like Greens or Labour may occur on town councils, but never at MP level. However, where Norfolk seems to part company with its Home County Tory chums is that it’s a bit more turbulent than the seamlessly douce quiet of Haselmere or Farnham.
First of all, they seem quite open to change. Breckland District’s former Chief Executive is returning to take on the job of joint Chief Executive with Holland District Council—the kind of radical innovation that Scots have shied away from. The voters also seem capable of discounting party loyalties and voting for the person. In yesterday’s by-election for two seats on Norwich City Council, Labour’s Marion Maxwell romped home in the Crome ward while Andrew Boswell retained the Green’s numbers at 15 by holding Nelson ward. Though the city’s two MPs are split between Tory and Lib-Dem, they elected only 5 and 6 councillors (out of 39) and both received a good drubbing at this poll.
Although the half-dozen surrounding district councils are solidly Tory, they are not the sleepy shires normally associated with that party. Jon Herbert, a Conservative member of South Norfolk District Council has resigned from the party to stand as an independent against Derrick Murphy, the Tory Leader of Norfolk County Council. The spat appears to stem from a combination of approval for 180 houses near his home in Mulbarton and an ongoing QC investigation into taxpayer-funded catfight internal to Norfolk Tories in which Mr Murphy seems implicated.
More disturbing to comprehend than that was the death of Keith Johnson, Leader of Tory-controlled North Norfolk Council. The police investigation into this is still ongoing but it appears Mr Johnson shot his wife of 18 years dead with one of her four shotguns in a neighbour’s garden in Cromer, returned home then shot himself in his own garden.
He had become Leader only in May with the “shock resignation” of Helen Eales who had led the Tories to victory in ousting the Lib-Dems from control of the council for the first time in its history. A new civic leader (= Provost) was chosen at the same time. Tom Fitzpatrick took over as Leader at this week’s council meeting at which a new civic leader Peter Moore was elected to replace John Perry-Warnes who resigned unexpectedly.
In case you think they might run out of councillors at this rate, there are 43 on North Norfolk Council serving a population of barely 80,000—smaller than East Lothian. And, in case you think this month is an unusual flurry of activity, on Nov 17th of this year, Dr Jenny Harries, joint director of public health at NHS Norfolk and Norfolk County Council resigned, saying she “could no longer sustain the toll being placed on her by living away from her family, who are based in Wales”.
Back on the County Council, Cllr Paul Rice defected from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives in July 2011, to be followed in November of that year by Cllr David Callaby, of Fakenham Ward. Cllr Phil Hardy who had been leader of the Green Party group on NCC defected to the Conservatives and one of the by-elections mentioned above was caused by Green Cllr David Rogers resigning, claiming the Green Party “attracts the gullible and the authoritarian”.
This scale of kerfuffle is not limited to the County. Having 47 Conservative, 3 Labour and 3 independents, Breckland District Council is almost the political mirror image of the old Glasgow City (74 Labour out of 77 total). But, like Glasgow, that did not lead to serenity. They have seen no fewer than five resignations since the last local election—one where a Labour member left to form a group with the independents, three Conservative resignations gave by-elections that they easily won back and the most recent was by Cllr Pauline Quadling who resigned as a Tory so that she can fight the current Tory leader (of Breckland, not Norfolk—don’t get confused with the above).
Given that the population of Norfolk is barely 0.75m (a fifth our 5.25m, even though it has almost half the number of councillors as Scotland), this level of political ‘churn’ seems amazing, most especially in a heartland of douce—and supposedly stable—Conservatism. Yet so frequent and incessant are such political spats that they seldom rate more than a side column in the Eastern Daily Press.
If this happened in Scotland, such council bun fights would never be off the front page.