The idea of regional government for Wessex was variously mooted over the course of the 20th century. Our founder, Alexander Thynn – Lord Weymouth and later Marquess of Bath – developed his own thoughts through the 1950s and 1960s, first expressing them publicly in a speech to tourism industry representatives in 1969. We count our continuous existence from 1974, when he stood as the first Wessex Regionalist candidate for the Westminster Parliament. At this date, there was no organisation under that name. Even in 1979, when seven candidates stood, they did so as individuals sharing a 12-point programme. The Wessex Regionalists – still not wholly committed to ‘party’ status – acted through Alexander as Chairman and Tony Mockler as Secretary-General, holding occasional informal gatherings, sometimes rather grandly bearing the label ‘conference’.
After the 1979 election, I wrote to Alexander for information and was sent a copy of the election programme and his 1975 booklet, ‘A Regionalist Manifesto’. I heard no more until September 1980. A huge envelope arrived, containing a small piece of paper, detailing a WR conference to be held on Sunday, 5th October, just 10 days away. Come to Longleat, said the notice. So I did.
The conference venue, a room in Alexander’s apartments, was a spacious saloon with chairs arranged in a semi-circle and the walls adorned with framed mural panels on ‘the Problems of Art’. I met one or two others as they arrived and then at 10 o’clock Alexander came bounding in, barefoot and pigtailed, wearing baggy blue trousers and a multi-coloured pullover that put Fair Isle to shame. It appeared from the wyverns in the design to be home-made and was certainly a work of art. The outfit was rounded off with a wyvern on a chain necklace. He was about to turn to greet me and was then noticed by someone else.
I had recently joined Mebyon Kernow and was sporting the party badge, so was eagerly spotted by John Fleet, a Cornishman living in Bristol and a leading light in Cornish research group Cowethas Flamank. John’s introduction to WR was the 1st Regionalist Seminar, organised by Tony Mockler at his Oxford college in May 1980, to which were invited all the nationalist, regionalist and autonomist movements then active in Britain, from Cornwall to Shetland. With the notable exception of the SNP, all had been represented. He introduced me to his fellow Cornish, Kay Littleton and others and to Tony Mockler and Gwenda McEwen. By 10:30 the room was filling up and soon after I had met Alexander and exchanged a few words we took our seats and the meeting got underway. The BBC were supposed to be there but had not shown up and there was no point in waiting any longer.
Alexander delivered an inaugural address, dismayed at the political prospects for Wessex Regionalism if the election deposit were to be raised to £1,000. There were two guest speakers, each invited to pitch on the theme of ‘A Focus for Action’. Mickey Barnes, an associate of Roy Jenkins, waffled unconvincingly about social democracy and the need for a new Centre Party to moderate the emerging extremes of British politics. (Devolution was a possibility that could come later, once this aim was achieved.) Tim Beaumont – Lord Beaumont of Whitley – spoke for the Green Alliance and inclined quite favourably towards us. All I now recall about him is a conversation later in which Alexander told me how, at Eton, the older Tim had taken despotic charge of the younger boys’ dormitory, demanding rent for the space around their beds, though the money raised supposedly was for a good cause. Is it just the estate-forming instinct?
We broke for coffee again and it was most necessary as the temperature was as low as it could go for the time of year. A group of Wessex amateur historians gathered beside the sales table and argued over the colour of the flag and the shape of the wyvern. Chris Dawe, from Christchurch, engaged earnestly in conversation on the early tribal areas of Anglo-Saxon England, as he often did. We all ended up buying wyvern badges whether we liked the design or not. WR always understood the Wyvern to be the flag of Wessex, gold, but on what background? Alexander had used black, others favoured red, but at Longleat Chris spoke up in debate for green, claiming that it must be right because the Territorial Army’s Wessex Regiment used green. At the time, this was accepted and the party continued to argue for a green background into the 1990s. There was always much more evidence for red and that was what ultimately prevailed and since 2012 has been officially recognised. Within WR, however, green and gold had by then become established as party colours.
Reconvened, the meeting proceeded to questions and became bogged down in reform of the House of Lords and then moved on to the problem of defining regions. Mickey Barnes wanted to ensure that they were economically viable, an undefined bureaucratism that social democrats loved to repeat. Lord Beaumont was against imposing schemes from above and the Cornish contingent were glad to hear it.
We broke for lunch in the Longleat restaurant, known back then as the Wessex Pavilion. It was probably warmer outside the house than in. Alexander was still barefoot and there were a number of visitors around but they simply ignored us. A light buffet was laid on.
By the time we returned, the BBC had arrived and set up lights and cameras. Alexander explained that BBC2 were filming a year in his life but coming late they’d already missed his speech. The afternoon proceedings began with a panel of four candidates and the Secretary-General – Tony – describing their election campaigns. Michael Mahoney – candidate at Winchester – had not yet appeared. Tony described his preparations in Abingdon and how he then switched to fighting Devizes, Colin Bex outlined his campaign for democracy that he took through Windsor & Maidenhead, from the castle to Cookham, and then, Henrietta Rous still reading her notes, we passed to Gwenda who in combat dress was in fine form to enthuse over her reception in Dorset West and what good-natured fun it had all been and how remarkably easy. She recommended it for anyone.
Tom Thatcher, a fashionable young farmer, recalled how he had discovered one of Alexander’s election addresses blowing across his land and subsequently stood for Westbury. With hay being delivered the morning after the count he had to miss the declaration and could hardly believe 1,905. Did people vote for the wrong Thatcher by mistake, asked the local paper? There was no mistake about it, was his reply. Tom was a popular local figure, active in the community, and was able to build on Alexander’s vote from five years earlier, though sharing a surname with the then Leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister surely did his chances no harm. Another candidate for Westbury in 1979, standing as an Independent, polled 642 votes more than Tom, so the supposed Mrs Thatcher boost can be laid to rest as a rural myth. West Wiltshire voters know who they like.
Finally, we came to Henrietta who, dressed in black plastic trousers, a yellow plastic belt, a white cardigan and a red sequin jacket, buried her face in her notes and almost whispered her traumatic reminiscences. Campaigning under the slogan ‘You’ll do better with Henrietta’, she had stood in Devon North, which contained the family seat of Clovelly Court and the picturesque village attached. She entered a crowded field against the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, about to stand trial for conspiracy to murder Norman Scott. Thorpe had been linked to an incident in which Scott’s dog had been shot dead, which attracted Auberon Waugh of ‘Private Eye’ to stand as candidate of the ‘Dog Lovers’ Party’, demanding ‘A better deal for YOUR dog’. Thorpe took out an injunction against Waugh’s manifesto giving any account of why he was standing. In this atmosphere, Henrietta did well to poll 50.
With Tony back in the chair, the BBC crew switched off the lights and packed up. He delivered a very sound analysis of the moves now needed. Today, a party that is serious about contesting elections has to register with the Electoral Commission, elect officers and submit an annual report and accounts. Back in 1980, there were no such requirements. Alexander had been reluctant to accept a formal structure, something put down to his anarchistic streak. He was thinking in terms of a ‘Wessex Movement’ or a ‘Wessex Society’ and accumulating names and addresses on that basis, grouped by degree of interest in the project. This was the first reference I encountered to a culturally based ‘Wessex Society’; nothing came of it at the time but it eventually launched in 1999.
After some lively debate, Colin called for votes, just for the record, and every motion was passed although they were really quite elementary, covering the things needed at the outset of any organisation. This was the meeting I was later to number as, de facto, the 1st Annual General Assembly. This was not what it was called at the time. That terminology only came into being with the adoption of a constitution at a Special Assembly in May 1981. October’s was perhaps more accurately the inaugural meeting but to call it that after WR had already fought two elections and chosen its officers seemed worse than to allow a small degree of anachronism. The first constitution was a very odd creature. Tony kept a handwritten copy in a large red book. This was also the only authoritative copy, a fact that was to give him the unique power to say what was constitutional and what was not.
Those who wished then crowded round to sign up as members. There were two or three people there wearing the badge of something called the Anglo-Saxon Church. In dark suits and ties, they looked more like Mormons than anything else.
With the conference formally at an end, a dozen or so of us adjourned to Alexander’s study for drinks, through coloured doors and down muralised corridors to a light blue room, softly lit and vaguely in French Empire style, adorned with ‘the Ages of Man’. A panel stood on an easel waiting to be incorporated into another mural. Here we discussed the election with Colin and with Tony and Tom discussed the day’s event. Richard Bonham Christie said something provocative about Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies being a necessary corrective. The women enthused over Alexander’s latest novel, the long-awaited first copy of ‘Pillars of the Establishment’ and he relayed the problems he had had getting the rest of the family not to sue for libel. Gwenda also enthused about the Kama Sutra bedroom and its ceiling mirror. There was a stock of large photograph albums on the table with hundreds of snaps of Alexander, friends and family, spaced out with press cuttings, all very absorbing. The women came back from another room less than sober and Tony Brokenshire offered to lend them a church conversion he was working on to spend the night in. Still there was no sign of Michael Mahoney – Mahoney’s ghost they started to call him. As we sat around the fireside, Lady Bath – Alexander’s step-mother – appeared and exhorted him to see the children – Lenka and Ceawlin – to bed.
Henrietta’s brother Johnny gave me a lift back to Warminster station, his now-drunk friend Loretta waving me off loudly. They were all a lovely crowd. I met many whose names, if not already familiar, would soon become so. WR – the organisation – was in being, with a long road ahead of it.