Government policy on devolution in England, debated since at least 1879, has always been based on hypothetical areas defined as compass bearings – North West, South East, etc. This ignores the rich history of England and its constituent parts that existed until England was first united under West Saxon leadership in 927AD. Our view has always been that new regions need solid roots that people will recognise as “their” area; hence Wessex.
History can be an inspiration but it is not a blueprint, still less a straitjacket. We are not seeking to ‘re-create’ some idealised Anglo-Saxon past. We are a modern political party, not a re-enactment group. For us, Wessex is NOW. It makes sense as a label for that largely rural part of England west of London and south of the industrial midlands, a region with contemporary problems to which we propose contemporary solutions. Every country has a ‘South West’ and a ‘South East’. If our area is to achieve its potential in today’s world it needs a distinctive and globally identifiable name.
Defining Wessex is not straightforward given the fluid nature of boundaries in the pre-Conquest period and that England was ultimately united under Wessex. Indeed, one of the claims to legitimacy used by the royal family still is descent from the Kings of Wessex. Autonomy for Wessex will need to mean autonomy from aspects of itself, or rather a reclaiming of them as purely regional, a letting-go of wider aspirations to empire-building.
Wessex means many things to different people; for some it is the fictional Wessex of Hardy; for some it is “the West Country”; to others it is the region which shares a common dialect – where “R” is sounded; for many the desire is to have a less centralised form of government in Britain and these would re-use the name only to give an identity to new boundaries.
There were several early Germanic settlements focussing on waterway routes into Wessex, along the Itchen, the Hampshire Avon, the Kennet and the Upper Thames. The earliest use of the name West Saxon became applied to the core settlements centred near to Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. This territory covered parts of Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire and corresponded with the first West Saxon diocese. Under its kings, such as Ceawlin and Ine, between the 7th and 9th centuries, Wessex expanded across the southwest peninsula. In the century following the coronation of Edgar as the first King of All England at Bath in 973AD, England came to be organised into five Great Earldoms; the Earldom of Wessex – a title revived for Prince Edward – was one of these Earldoms.
These facts shaped our definition of Wessex, embracing Berkshire, Bristol, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire. Cornwall, as the last of the Celtic areas to be brought under Wessex rule, retained a more distinct character which it has sought to re-affirm in the modern era and has its own devolutionary party, Mebyon Kernow, with whom WR has a long-standing working relationship.
Is our definition perfect? We think it better than any alternative, and we have seen a few; it forms the fruit of half a century of often passionate debate. Our conclusions marry a heritage we value to practical, 21st century geography, providing a firm foundation for an exciting future.