Alexander George Thynne (he later dropped the ‘e’ from his surname) was born in London on 6th May 1932 but, as he put it, he “emigrated to Wessex within the next few weeks”. His mother was Cornish, a member of the Vivian family. His father was Henry Frederick Thynne, then styled Viscount Weymouth and later the 6th Marquess of Bath, the first of the showman aristocrats who opened their homes to the public after the Second World War. ‘We have seen the Lions of Longleat’, ran the car sticker. Inevitably, a spoof version was eventually to surface: ‘We have seen the Regionalists of Wessex’.
It was not until 1969 that Alexander first spoke of Wessex as a practical provincial definition (to use Thomas Hardy’s phrase), at a tourist board convention in Taunton. “I only reached the end of my speech with some difficulty,” he recalled. “There were some interruptions urging me to shut up, or to sit down.” By 1974, he had come to the conclusion that the only way to give clear expression to his regionalist ideas was to stand for Parliament, which he did, in the west Wiltshire seat of Westbury. And so Wessex Regionalism began.
Early in the next decade, there came a parting of ways. It might seem odd that someone who created a new political party because the others weren’t up to the job should then abandon it to enter the mainstream, but there are precedents. He explained his motives to The Regionalist in 1986 in the following terms:
“I felt that we had in fact publicised, and achieved, all that was within our reach within this particular phase of political evolution. There didn’t seem much point for me to be seen to be going over the same old ground, repeating myself, upon the political platform. Far better that I prepare myself for a time when I may have acquired an enhanced position to be useful to the devolutionary cause, with a seat perhaps, in the House of Lords: particularly if by that time there were to be an Alliance government in power.”
The majority view was that the Party should continue, a view that was progressively strengthened despite, or even because of, what was slung at it by the Westminster cartel (notably the tripling of the election deposit in 1985). There was, and is, no reason to allow ourselves to be relegated to an interesting footnote in some PhD thesis 200 years hence. While Alexander re-aligned himself with the Social Democrats and then the Liberal Democrats and awaited his seat in the Lords (which arrived in 1992 when he succeeded as 7th Marquess), others insisted that while there was energy to be devoted to the cause it should not go to waste.
Alexander’s tactical choice to exchange leadership of the Wessex Regionalists for the obscurity of the new centre ground appears not to have borne the fruit he may have imagined it doing. For all their federalist heritage, the Liberal Democrats today are in power nationally with a party dedicated to keeping regional devolution well off the agenda. It would be tempting to say ‘we told you so’ but it was far from apparent in 1981 that this would be the course of events.
What will be history’s judgement? We can today offer only the most provisional assessment. Lord Bath, probably, will take his place in a long line of Wessex mavericks from a comfortable background, from Edmund Burke to Tony Benn, but for the sharpest ‘compare and contrast’ we need look no further than Sir Richard Acland, 15th Baronet.
The Aclands of Killerton House, near Exeter, were for long major landowners in western Wessex, at their height presiding over 15,000 acres in Devon and 20,000 acres in Somerset, on the edge of Exmoor. Richard was the Liberal MP for Barnstaple from 1935 until, in 1942, he was instrumental in launching Common Wealth, a radical socialist party whose surviving members became a major influence on WR from 1980 onwards. ‘CW’ won three by-elections before being dealt a near-fatal blow by the swing to Labour in 1945. Richard, having failed to win a seat in the new Parliament, was among those who then jumped ship, later serving under Attlee as Second Church Estates Commissioner. He declined to take any long-term interest in the fate of the party he had founded.
As a socialist, Acland did find his inherited wealth an embarrassment and in 1944 he handed his estates to the National Trust. Lord Bath is relaxed about the idea that Longleat should belong to the community of Wessex, but it is not an idea he sees any need to advance unilaterally. The House of Thynne has no grand gesture to its name to set beside the House of Acland’s generous gift.
Our past President, John Banks, who knew both men, described Acland as the more intense and hard-working. Some of his views could even be classed as impatient and intolerant. Of Lord Bath, the worst caricature might describe him as a hedonist, self-obsessed, absorbed in creating and collecting art, commercially-aware, though not grasping, and showing no more than a passing interest in the civic responsibilities his ancestors took for granted. (His grandfather, the 5th Marquess, was Chairman of Wiltshire County Council continuously for 40 years.)
Alexander spent just eight years actively involved in the politics of Wessex Regionalism. Over 30 years have passed since. Anyone in his position must surely battle against suspicions of all kinds. Ours is a difficult age in which to be a political aristocrat, no matter how original and brilliant are the ideas put forth. For every sneer at the silver spoon there will be an equal and opposite accusation of class treason. For every accusation of leaving our Party to sink or swim by its own efforts, there would otherwise have been the accusation of creating a kept plaything. When our Party’s first constitution was drafted in 1980, it was suggested that the founder should automatically be a member of the Party Council, without needing to be voted on. The proposal sat ill with Alexander’s democratic ideals; he argued against it and did so successfully.
Wessex Regionalism is indeed an original and brilliant idea. It could not have been created except by someone with the leisure time, the mental freedom and flexibility, and the degree of independence from mainstream politics that are needed to think deeply about the key political problems of our time. It could not have been launched upon Wessex and the world without the public persona and panache that the Thynnes possess in abundance. Anyone who feels embarrassed by the roots of Wessex Regionalism should ask themselves how else it might have emerged in the era that it challenged.
This very straightforward idea was expressed not in a series of weighty tomes but in a slim pamphlet (A Regionalist Manifesto, 1975), occasional articles, and election addresses. In artistic terms, it amounted to a preliminary sketch, not a finished painting. That is its attraction for those drawn to it by its need for elaboration. In that sense, it is a profoundly democratic, collaborative, even trans-generational project. It has a beginning. But no end. And along the way, what advances the cause of Wessex is incorporated and what doesn’t is discarded. No-one since Thomas Hardy has done more to breathe life into the identity we so cherish, but Lord Bath’s most lasting legacy may be to have left so much undone. In the ancient wisdom of Lao Tzu, “I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves.”