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Welsh History Review


Vol. 19, nos. 1-4 1998-99

Politics in Eighteenth-Century Wales. Book review.

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much in common with that of seventeenth-century England, electoral
struggles still consisting of local feuds and rivalries. The tendency, as in
England, was towards oligarchy, and by the end of the period only the
Morgans of Tredegar, the Owens of Orielton, the Wynns of Wynnstay and
the Bulkeleys of Baron Hill, together with some twenty families, had the
chance of gaining a seat. The towns were too small to have much independ-
ent life of their own. Wrexham, the largest with 3,000 inhabitants, was not
represented in Parliament, and many of the out-boroughs elsewhere, like
Knucklas, Painscastle and Wiston, were no more than villages. There were
few contests and the number was diminishing. Though the electorate was
more than five times larger than that of Scotland, voters obeyed their betters,
and what vitality remained came from family or neighbourhood quarrels, or
from the struggle of out-boroughs to retain their share in the representation.
One looks in vain for evidence of nationalism or radicalism. Those radicals
who did emerge, like Watkin Lewes or Robert Morris, pursued their careers
mainly outside the principality. Wales seemed an encouraging example of the
success of British integration, though it could be argued that it was more
ring-fenced than integrated. Welsh MPs gave little trouble to governments
and showed little ambition to shine at Westminster, though they were good
askers; while governments troubled themselves little about Wales, save to
keep an eye on the Society of Sea Serjeants as a nest of possible Jacobites.
Even Welsh Jacobitism, to which Thomas devotes a chapter, turned out to be
a rather tame thing: the '45 found Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the great Welsh
dragon, distinctly short of money, so he prudently sponsored a loyal address
from Denbighshire rather than marching to join his prince at Derby.
Thomas's touch is sure and many of his details delightful. There is a
reminder not to be too sentimental about the rule of the gentry in the
reaction of John Meller, who inherited in 1720 the estate of Erddig, that
'this whole country is governed by fear'. Canvassing was by traditional
methods: in 1709 Sir Herbert Mackworth was reported to be wooing the
voters of Cardiganshire with a promise to 'bring the white cloth trade from
Shrewsbury into Cardiganshire build them a quay at Aberystwyth
and build them Cardigan steeple, which fell some years since'.
Only occasionally does the argument seem a little forced. It is slightly
misleading to assure the reader that the competitive creation of votes was a
'uniquely Welsh phenomenon': in England the creation of faggot votes by
splitting burgages and the election of honorary freemen were common, while
the Scottish electorate was notorious for its 'parchment-barons'. It is true
that Welsh MPs, lacking in political ambition and frequently absent, made
unreliable party men, but it may be overstating the case to see a settled
propensity to opposition. In the division on Excise in 1733, they divided
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