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Martin Horwood MP

Dead cats and dissolution. crack

By the time you read this column, I will almost certainly have been dissolved. Not by malicious acid-sprouting aliens but by command of Her Majesty. ‘Dissolution’ is the traditional end of one parliament. It marks the official start of the election campaign for the next one. In Cheltenham it will again be a two-horse race between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives – part of a tradition stretching back 178 years.

Cheltenham’s very first MP, the aristocratic Craven Berkeley, was elected in 1832. I’m proud to say he was a Liberal (or ‘Whig’ to be strictly historically accurate) and supported causes like giving the vote to less wealthy Cheltonians against diehard Tory opposition. He infuriated arch-Tory Reverend Dean Close by supporting drinking on Sundays and the races at Prestbury Park, both of which Close wanted banned. I’m less proud to report Craven’s fondness for duels or that he once barred the door of a Tory bookshop while his brother beat up the proprietor. But even election meetings were violent affairs in those days, with frequent riots and missiles thrown at candidates.

Craven was very popular and often re-elected but lost the Cheltenham seat twice. In 1847 he rashly complained about the local mortality rate, inadvertently damaging the town’s reputation as a healthy Spa. The Tories won the election soon afterwards following a campaign ‘in which money was spent like no other’ and ‘every man who had a vote and was willing to sell it was passing rich for many days after, not to say
gloriously drunk also.’ Berkeley’s supporters successfully complained that the winning Tory Sir Willoughby Jones had bribed and treated his way to victory. This was a bit rich coming from the Berkeleys and although Craven won the resulting by-election, the Tories then made exactly the same accusation against him and he too was unseated. After sitting out one term in the political doghouse, he was triumphantly re-elected in 1852 and died in office.

The Berkeley family was finally defeated in an even more violent and expensive election in 1865. Dead cats were thrown at the Conservative candidate Charles Schreiber and one Liberal was shot dead by a Tory supporter. When Schreiber won, all his windows were immediately broken by an angry mob. The defeated candidate, Colonel Berkeley, was no happier and a lot poorer, grumpily declaring the town ‘very dear and more money is spent on political matters than it is worth. I wish I had never seen the town of Cheltenham.’

Modern politics has calmed down a bit.

Dissolution 2010 shouldn’t bring riots, dead cats or murders. But more money is being spent here than for many years. These days it goes not on booze and bribes but on leaflets, phone-calls, mailshots and expensive billboard posters – much of it outside the limits of local election expenses. We have to be careful not to let big money take over our politics again. The era of rich families holding sway over towns like Cheltenham belongs to the past and rightly so.