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Blackburn honoured by visit

I'm biased I know, but if you're asking me, I thought the Condoleezza Rice visit to Blackburn was really good for the town, and for its communities.

First, it gave the town and the good things going for it astonishing coverage world wide. I'll take a bet.

When you're next on your holidays in some sunspot abroad, and someone at the bar is asking where you come from, they'll have a much better and more up-to-date picture of Blackburn than they did before.

One of the things which really aggravates me is the sustained snootiness of people from the south east towards the north, especially its older industrial areas.

This particularly applies to journalists (most of whom live in the south east) and other "opinion formers".

They will have driven through Lancashire on the way to the Lakes or Scotland, flown over it, or taken the West Coast train line, but their vision of the former textile towns of Lancashire will be just that cloths, shawls, tripe and mills, even "dark Satanic mills".

So the varied programme showing what East Lancashire has going for it was terrific.

BAE Systems Samlesbury a world beating aerospace factory; a wonderful presentation in the Cathedral; the visit to Ewood Park, the BBC Lecture Dr Rice gave, and the world advertising of the excellent banqueting and conference facilities down there, as well as conversations with Mark Hughes, Brad Friedel and Andy Todd and the visits to Pleckgate School and to the town hall.

Indeed, the high spots for me of the whole two-day trip Liverpool and Blackburn were these two events.

Why? Because Dr Rice was able to hear Blackburn voices on key issues of the day.

The Pleckgate students on the School Council were very impressive.

They put their points with such poise and confidence, and politeness, they were a credit to their parents and the school.

The school council encounter with Dr Rice was broadcast live on the world's TV.

Although that did not appear to faze the youngsters, it was bound to constrain the discussion.

In contrast, the hour-long discussion on Saturday morning in the town hall between Dr Rice and a dozen leaders of the Muslim communities in town was in private, and the better for it.

There are plenty of complaints from white and Asian people about US policy, especially in relation to the Middle East.

Here was an opportunity for those who have such strong criticisms of the US and that included every member of this delegation - to do something about those criticisms to put them directly to the most senior US foreign policy official apart from President Bush, and one of his closest confidants.

The meeting was respectful but no punches were pulled.

Dr Rice must speak for herself, but I doubt she has ever had an encounter like that while abroad.

The arguments she heard certainly made an impression on her, and will I think make a difference too.

There were demonstrations on both days, in Blackburn and Liverpool. They were peaceful, and I am glad those who felt so strongly were able to express their views so clearly.

But I appreciated less the "demand" that Dr Rice should not have come to town. That would have been an easy option for sure, but what exactly would it have achieved? Nothing. And what was also striking was how many people from our communities were glad Dr Rice came.

Story by Jack Straw MP for Blackburn and published in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph