The spirit of Goodwill

Farmers everywhere are being encouraged to diversify. Robert Goodwill has gone further than most. He's just started ploughing a furrow at Westminster. Chris Berry talked to him

FulfiLling a lifetime's ambition on May 5 has left one farm owner with a smile.

The phone keeps ringing at Robert Goodwill's home and he accepts the congratulations with good grace and not a little pride. In his village, people stop their cars to let him know how happy they are for him.

Twenty years since he started out on the political trail from his home at Terrington, near Castle Howard, Robert finally took up his seat in the House of Commons last week after being elected as MP for Scarborough and Whitby, having had a taste of political life in Europe.

Robert, who is married to Maureen and has three children – Bobby, Harry and Lucy – diversified from farming five years ago when he started a green burial site.

"This is where people wish to have a more environmentally friendly end to their existence. They can be buried in a cardboard coffin and in a pleasant rural location. Instead of a headstone we plant a tree and in the fullness of time the area becomes a forest."

More than 100 people are buried in the field just outside Terrington and the cemetery is now more profitable than the farm's 250 arable acres.

Of his decision to fight a Westminster seat, Robert says: "I suppose my decision to go into politics was partly to do with farming now seeming more dependent on the political climate rather than the weather.

"At university I was quite active in student politics. It was very near the end of the Callaghan government and it was quite cool and trendy to be a Conservative. After leaving there I came back to the farm and it wasn't until a by-election that I had my interest rekindled in 1986."

But what will happen to the farm now he is an MP? "I've not been particularly hands-on for the last six years," says Robert who became an MEP in 1999.

"Running the farm then was difficult for the first six months because being elected came as quite a surprise and we had a number of commitments. We did have a flock of sheep at the time but that proved impractical to manage from the other side of the North Sea.

"We also stopped growing potatoes which we used to grow for McCains, so now it's all combinable crops on a system designed to be simple.

"Now we have all of our combining done by a contractor and have a full-time man who has been with us for over 20 years, so really the farm runs itself. I make the month-to- month decisions and Mark makes the day to day ones."

Robert didn't stand again for Europe, despite having become Deputy Leader of the party in Brussels. His mind has always been on the Commons and his ambition, you sense, is not fully requited as yet.

"I didn't stand again in the European elections so that I could work full-time as the candidate for Scarborough and Whitby and really from September last year I have been working on achieving this every day. Maybe I've got one or two ambitions still outstanding."

So is his first role in Parliament going to see him use his farming background to represent those in agriculture?

"I have a big rural area and many people, not just the farmers, feel their particular views were not represented by the last government, such as country sports.

"When I arrived at the European Parliament I was conscious of not being seen as a one-club golfer so I specialised in environmental policy. There's a lot to be said for long-term experience and commitment, so I hope if I do get a chance to be a part of a front-bench team that I can at least stick to one subject. Not that I see any front bench involvement for at least two or three years."

At a local level, Robert believes the A64 and Whitby Hospital are his top priorities. "The A64 is the big issue in terms of economy and tourism. We do need a decent dual carriageway. Whitby Hospital's decreasing service is a scandal and I am meeting with the health trust in two weeks."

Having suffered defeats to Mo Mowlem in the 1992 General Election and missing out again in 1997, Robert was given a marginal constituency to contest and turned a 3,585 Labour majority into a gain by 1,225 votes. When did he know he had it won?

"During the count it was quite disconcerting. They count the votes and put them in bundles of 25, then a person will go round and collect up the votes of one candidate. The person collecting up the Labour votes could carry more in a boxful so their votes were stacking up faster, but my people kept telling me to go to the far end where there were loads of mine that hadn't been collected. At the very end the two heaps were neck and neck, and then a very big box was brought. They put it between the two piles and our hearts were in our mouths until they started stacking them on my pile."

His relaxation is steam engines, of which he has two traction engines and a steam lorry that he takes to shows in the summer.

"No doubt I'll be taking part in Cayton Gala again this year," he says, with the same enthusiasm as his election result.

As for his favourite to succeed Michael Howard, he's very much in with the political speak. "I'm not deciding that yet." He says a lot more – but unfortunately it's all the usual lines you would hear from any politician. He does, however, have definite feelings towards one Yorkshire colleague. "If William Hague allowed his name to be put forward it would be an entirely different matter."