Tradition or trumpery?

On Easter Monday, the unelected Corporation of Winchelsea will once again perform the astounding trick of electing a mayor, having already announced who he of she will be! The members of the unelected Corporation will also elect themselves for another year. This ceremony, we are told, continues a 700-year old tradition. The mayoring will be attended by representatives of other Cinque Ports, the chair of Rother District Council and Keith Glazier, Leader of East Sussex County Council. Ironically, all of these dignitaries have been democratically elected to office by the voters of their respective constituencies. Most of them will be under the mistaken impression that the “mayor of Winchelsea” has been elected by the people of Winchelsea and, by attending, they will be helping to perpetuate that myth.

The mayors of Dover, Hastings, Rye and other towns, as well as Councillor Glazier (who attends no other social functions in Winchelsea), will be helping to celebrate, not a 700-year old tradition, but Winchelsea’s dismal and later 300-year history as a Rotten Borough, where the election of the mayor and Corporation, as well as two MPs, was decided by no more than 13 voters under the control of local landowners. The current method of choosing members of the Corporation is a reversion back to this corrupt practice. This is not the process in place when the Corporation was abolished as the town council under the Muncipal Corporations Act of 1886 (when it was being elected by all voters in the community). Nor is it even the way that elections were conducted in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Disturbingly, members of the Corporation see the mayoring’s celebration of a bleak episode in the history of our democracy as a cause for pride and are happy to point out that they are the only “un-reformed corporation” still in business. Does it matter? Is it, as someone recently said on Facebook, “The tradition is quirky, its just silly small town stuff that doesn’t seem to do anyone any harm. Who cares really. If they like it, let them get on with it”? So it can seem. A bunch of old men and women shuffling around in rather tatty comic dress.

Unfortunately, there is an insidious side to having an unelected body calling itself Winchelsea Corporation. Many outsiders (including most attending the mayoring) assume that what is written on the label is what is inside the tin and that Winchelsea Corporation is the elected town council. Members of the Corporation like to encourage that misperception. It gives them an influence that does not require submitting themselves to the ballot box. There have been instances where the use of this influence has been scandalous, if not criminal. Just after World War 1, the Corporation tried to bribe Alex Finch, chairman of Icklesham Parish Council, into opposing the building of council houses for returning soldiers by promising to co-opt him into the Corporation and making him mayor.

Rother District Council used to send local planning applications to the Corporation for comment. And in response to the request for a separate parish council for Winchelsea, Rother made it clear that their first concern was that an elected Winchelsea parish council might confuse “people” over the role of the un-elected Corporation!

More recently, the company filming “Monuments Men” approached the unelected mayor on the assumption that he was the elected chairman of the town council and paid over £500 to compensate residents for the inconvenience of the filming. The money was split privately between the Corporation and the Winchelsea Archaeological Society (WAS). Nothing criminal in that, but hardly fair to all residents. (Let me declare a personal interest here. I was treasurer of WAS and accepted the money on its behalf, as I was not in a position to refuse a donation to the charity and only after contacting the film company to say that there was no need for any payment. WAS has since donated the money to other local archaeological causes, including the repair of the Pipewell Gate.)

And then, there is the legal status of the Corporation. When it lost its civic powers, the Corporation was preserved as a charity, in order not to diminish the membership of the equally defunct Cinque Port Confederation. As a charity, the Corporation is eligible for preferential tax treatment, but it is not subject to the same safeguards as other charities. It does not have to publish its financial accounts. And this is despite receiving public funds from bodies such as English Heritage and Icklesham Parish Council. No other charity gets away with that.

The public funds received by the Corporation are used to repair the ancient monuments which it owns, which are the sole real purpose for its existence. But little or no money from the Corporation’s purse is ever spent on these buildings. Repairs are largely or entirely funded by public grants, money raised by the Friends of the Ancient Monuments (a charity which is controlled by the Corporation and used as a front) or donations towards repair projects made by residents or local societies.

Interestingly, the ownership of Winchelsea’s ancient monuments by the Corporation is a scandal in itself. When it lost its civic powers and was replaced by Icklesham Parish Council, the assets of the town, cash and property, were siphoned off into the Corporation, despite belonging to the electorate of the town. Since then, most of the land given to the Corporation has been sold off to its own members in private deals. This monunmental fraud on the people of Winchelsea was perpetrated by the local MP, Frederick Inderwick. He was also a mayor ! For obvious reasons, the Corporation parades in full fig before his grave every year on the anniversary of his death.