Howard is a Transylvanian hero

WITH momentous events taking place in London this week, the thoughts of a remote Transylvanian village in Romania turned to Britain for reasons very different to the visit of President George W.

WITH momentous events taking place in London this week, the thoughts of a remote Transylvanian village in Romania turned to Britain for reasons very different to the visit of President George W. Bush.

Ruscova has decided to adopt Tory leader Michael Howard, even though he has never set foot there. The village, where Mr Howard's father was born and grew up not far from the border with Ukraine, has been unable to conceal its pride since he became the Conservative Party leader earlier this month.

"He is a son of our village," Ruscova mayor Vasile Pop said. "We want to build a memorial to him here and make him an honorary citizen. If he came here, we would give him a proper Transylvanian welcome –with peasants riding white horses, offering bread, salt and plum brandy."

Howard's father, a Jewish shopkeeper born in Ruscova as Bernat Hecht, fled in 1939 as anti-Semitic fascists gained influence in Romania. Hecht settled in Wales, where he changed his name to Bernard Howard. He died in 1966, having never returned to Romania.

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Mr Howard's emergence at the top of the Tory Party has rekindled the sadness among locals over the loss of Ruscova's once-flourishing Jewish community.

During the war, 1,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps. The victims included Michael Howard's aunt, Leicea Hecht, who died at Auschwitz. Just 50 Jews returned to the village after 1945, but all since have emigrated to Israel. The last Jewish family left for good in 1988.

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A Jewish cemetery with more than 100 graves, including those of Mr Howard's grandparents, is located on hills across the fast-flowing Ruscova River. Every summer, Jewish families visit the graves.

The image makers and spin doctors at Conservative Central Office are no doubt weighing the publicity value of Mr Howard being photographed at the graveside of his grandparents against the risk of some newspapers turning his visit to Dracula's homeland into a near racist and high camp mickey take. The Daily Mirror recently published a story about the politician with the headline: "Dracula Stakes His Claim."

But Ruscova's residents insist that Mr Howard's Transylvanian blood will only be an asset. "He has the spirit of justice," says the mayor. "Discipline and hard work flow through him.

Those who knew Howard's father, who was a grocer before he emigrated to Britain, remember him as a kindly man who gave impoverished families food on credit. His former home, a one-storey house with a wooden porch and a deep cellar on Ruscova's main street, is now a lumberyard. Only one of the village synagogues, where the elder Howard was a cantor, is still standing, but it is empty and unused – upstairs, a store sells paint, a pasta maker and disposable nappies.

TORY MP David Ruffley and Liberal Democrat life peer Baroness Scott of Needham Market have sprung to the defence of rural travel and the social needs of village communities.

In a House of Lords debate, Lady Scott hit out at the tradition that large empty buses should operate in rural areas allowing people to "go to the doctor but only on Thursday afternoons if they are prepared to wait two hours for a bus and then remain in the nearest town for five hours until the bus returns."

She said this was "neither cost-effective nor responsive to passengers' needs. We must do much more about demand-responsive services, such as dial-a-ride. Although the demand in rural areas is numerically small, it is crucial to the individuals who need the service."

Lady Scott, who argued that buses should be able to provide access to essential services for those who for various reasons do not have access to a car, said the cost of bus fares was rising way ahead of retail prices and the cost of running a private car.

"That is because of the cost of labour and insurance. The irony is that because of the openness of our decision-making processes in local government, when local bus operators see that more money is being put into the public transport budget the first thing they do is put up their costs."

Mr Ruffley has highlighted recommendations from a prominent Labour think tank that motorists should be charged 10p for every kilometre they travel. If implemented, the Institute for Public Policy Research's plans would raise £16bn for the Treasury. But Mr Ruffley, claiming it was yet another example of those in urban areas failing to understand the realities of rural people, said: "Residents in the towns and villages around Bury St Edmunds rely on their vehicles for access to vital services such as doctors, schools and shops."

THE foundation hospitals vote in the Commons on Wednesday night claimed a major casualty – the international soccer match between the UK and Czech parliaments due to be played at Ipswich Town's Portman Road stadium. The encounter, now postponed until the new year, would have raised cash for TRUCE, the organisation established by Nancy Dell'Olio and supported by England manager Sven-Goran Erikkson to help develop and improve football facilities in war-torn countries.

ANOTHER bad day in the Commons for the Liberal Democrat leader on Wednesday. The Prime Minister, clearly believing Charles Kennedy was fuelling the rampant anti-George Bush and anti-American protests on the streets of London in the wake of the war in Iraq, told him: "It really is about time we started to realise who are allies are, who are enemies are – stick with the one and fight the other."

A BID to get the UK to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy was launched this week by Banff and Buchan's Scottish Nationalist MP Alex Salmond with all-party support. His Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill would also assert national control over Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish waters. Mr Salmond is backed by Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs, the Ulster Unionist Party and Plaid Cymru, as well as many fishing organisations representing both onshore and offshore sectors.

"This cross-party Bill can have enormous significance in making it clear to the European Commission that MPs from fishing communities have had enough of the CFP," says Mr Salmond.

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