Thursday, 8 April 2010

In Paxton's footsteps?

There was a time when only the wealthy could afford to become MPs; but then Sir William Paxton was a very wealthy man. So when he stood for the Whigs in Carmarthenshire in the Great Election of 1802, he was in a position to spare no expense. There were only 2,500 people eligible to vote in the whole constituency, and Paxton assiduously set about winning their support.

By the end of the campaign, Paxton had spent £15,690 on trying to win over those electors – including the provision of 11,070 breakfasts, 36,901 lunches, 684 suppers, 25,275 gallons of beer, and 11,068 bottles of spirits. It was a very large sum of money in 1802; it would be an enormous sum today.

'Treating' electors, by providing them with food and drink, was legal in those days of course, but these days it is not allowed – largely as a result of such historical excess. Election candidates must not 'treat' by offering food or drink to electors, as the Electoral Commission's guidance to candidates and agents makes perfectly clear.

Or does it? Certainly, once an election has been called, the practice is illegal, but how about in the days and weeks before that? It's an interesting question – and far from being entirely academic, either.

The local constituency association of the Conservatives in Wales is also quite wealthy. Funded largely by hunters and hedgies, their own accounts reveal that they have a healthy reserve of £85,000 available to spend. Enough for the odd buffet or glass of wine, at least. And the postage to invite electors to come along and partake.

Last night, they held a little get-together in Cynwyl Elfed – described as an opportunity to meet the Tory candidate informally "over light refreshments". The invitation made it clear that there was no requirement for people to give advance notice of their attendance, but said that advance notice "would help us arrange the catering".

It's a sensible precaution – if you're inviting a lot of people to an event, I can see that it might be difficult to ensure that you have the right quantity of food and drink available. And they do seem to have invited a large number of people. A very large number of people. Everyone in Cynwyl Elfed and Llanpumsaint – including, of course, Plaid's many members and supporters in the area - seems to have been invited by letter sent out through the post. That's about 1400 people in total.

And it seems that t's not the only such event that they've organised – they held a similar one at the Pantyrathro Hotel in Llansteffan a few weeks ago, and seem to have invited everyone in the Llansteffan ward – around another 1600 people. I don't, at this stage, know whether any others have been held or planned, but I wouldn't be at all surprised.

There was a sting in the tail for Paxton. The people of Carmarthenshire were canny enough to recognise a bit of attempted bribery when they saw it. After partaking of his hospitality, and in the privacy of the polling booth, they voted for his opponent anyway.

A few years later, Paxton built a large folly, officially dedicated to the memory of Nelson. But many locals still claim that Paxton's Tower was actually built as a place from which he could look down on those who had rejected him; a permanent reminder of the events of "Y Lecsiwn Fawr".

Will history repeat itself? Only time will tell - but "Hart's Folly" has a certain ring to it.

No comments: