I don’t suppose I’m alone in believing that Theresa May’s stated reasons for calling a snap election were both paper thin and transparently disingenuous. That is not necessarily intended as a condemnation. This is politics after all, and May has proved pretty effective at the dark arts.
Immediately after yesterday’s announcement of a 2017 general election (the joys, the joys), an old student mine (take a bow Jacob Baxter) immediately tipped a hat to 1923. And that got me thinking, what about snap general elections we have known?
And there we begin. All the elections outlined above were called at a moment of the then prime minister’s choosing, more or less. True, in 1931, it was really Baldwin rather than MacDonald who sought the ‘doctor’s mandate’, but MacDonald obeyed His Master’s Voice and went to the country. Attlee’s (mistaken) choice of October 1951 was constrained by George VI’s imminent departure on a royal tour, but it was his call. If we were to count the first 1974 election (and I’m not really inclined to, that was a gamble taken, again mistakenly by a much buffeted figure). In short, each of the were all the PM’s call, just as this one in May’s call.
In all but one case, they all have something else in common. May has gone to the country for one reason above all others: she believes that her wafer thin majority will be transformed into a comfortable majority (and quite possibly a landslide). Here, the election she might have in mind is 1966. After 13 years in opposition, Harold Wilson had got Labour across the line with a majority of just four. The 44% of the popular vote Labour won in 1964 was pretty much the same as they had won in 1959, which had seen Macmillan’s Tories win a 100 seat majority. Wilson won in 1964 primarily thanks to a Liberal resurgence and a commensurate fall in the Conservative vote. No less important was the fact that Labour won 20 seats thanks to a Liberal standing in 1964 where none had stood in 1959 (a full analysis can be read here).
A majority of four was not viable, and in March 1966 Wilson took the plunge. A small fall in the Liberal vote and a slightly larger fall in the Tory vote allowed the British electoral system to do its work and gave Wilson a majority of 96.
Wilson tried the same trick in October 1974. The February election (read about it here) had been, in effect, a score draw and Labour got the toss of the electoral system coin and were four seats ahead of the Conservatives, but short of an overall majority. Thus it was Wilson went in the October, hoping to turn that into an overall majority. He succeeded, but it was a pyrrhic victory, giving Labour a majority of just three with some extremely choppy waters ahead.
At least Wilson won. In 1950, Attlee’s Labour had seen their 1945 landslide wiped out, and (despite polling more votes than in 1945) won a majority of just five seats. Seeing this as unworkable, Attlee went to the country again in October 1951, hoping to increase that majority. 1951 is one of those textbook first-past-the –post elections (you can read about the elections of 1950 and 1951 here, and here). Attlee succeeded in one sense: Labour won 48.8% of the popular vote (the highest share in its history). However, a resurgent Conservative party won 48% (up by 5.6%), in large part thanks to a collapse in the liberal vote. That Liberal collapse, and their failure to field candidates in a number of Labour-Conservative marginals, gave Churchill his victory. Attlee had gambled, and lost.
In 1923, Baldwin gambled. And Baldwin lost. He had not gone to the country for need of a more comfortable majority, as he already had a very comfortable one. Losing 86 seats, he then lost office.
Baldwin lost two elections. However, he is unique in modern British political history, winning three landslides. And the mother of all landslides was the snap election of 1931. As I always tell my students, the 1931 election is unique in all sorts of ways. Whatever else we might say about it (and I will shortly), there was no little party politics and calculation about Baldwin’s decision to force an election on MacDonald in 1931. It would, he knew, deliver a de facto Conservative landslide.
At least there was a genuine national emergency of sorts in 1931. The Great Depression was bad enough, but a lethal combination of the end of the Gold Standard and an unbalanced budget requiring sharp cuts in spending at least gave MacDonald a pretty convincing excuse for it. In truth (with the possible exception of February 1974, and I’m not counting that), there was no compelling national emergency requiring electoral endorsement at any other time.
Jacob Baxter’s point was that 1923 was, in effect, a single-issue election, just as some are coming to see 2017. Baldwin’s reasons for calling that election remain elusive (I will advance, even if not necessarily believing them, a few other explanations below). There is, I think, quite a lot to say for taking him at face value. Baldwin called an election in 1923 over the issue of tariffs. Ever since Joseph Chamberlain had first put the idea forward 20 years before, tariff reform had split the Conservatives down the middle. When the ‘peasant’s revolt’ at the Carlton Club ended the Lloyd George coalition and defenestrated Austen Chamberlain, Andrew Bonar Law had made a spectacular political comeback. He capped that with a comfortable victory in the subsequent general election. In that campaign, the characteristically cautious Bonar Law had tried to take the steam out of the tariff issue, which had hurt the Conservatives electorally so badly in 1906, but again in the two elections of 1910: all three of which they had lost. In short, he promised that there would be no move by a Conservative government towards the systematic implementation of tariffs without recourse to the electorate. Baldwin believed in tariffs. Thus Baldwin went to the country.
He lost. One reading of Baldwin’s 1923 decision was an over-confidence borne of the state of the opposition. First and foremost, the Liberals were bitterly divided between the Lloyd George Liberals and the ‘Squiffites (ironically, the 1923 election saw them reunite after a fashion). Then, the new Labour party further divided that opposition. Thus it was, in 1922, that the Conservatives had a comfortable majority of 72 whilst only commanding 38.5% of the vote (they only fielded 482 candidates).
Baldwin’s gamble failed, primarily because the Liberals, who hastily reunited around the classic Liberal issue of free trade, polled just under 30% and won 158 seats. Labour polled just over 30%, and won 191 seats. The opposition were in far better fettle than Baldwin envisaged.
Baldwin’s next snap election had a very different outcome. This time, the opposition parties were in anything but fine fettle. The Liberals were in something very like their death throes. The general election of 1924 had reduced them to 40 seats. A Liberal recovery of sorts, allied to Labour winning 37% of the popular vote in 1929 had been enough to see the Conservatives lose 152 seats and leave Labour as the largest party and into (minority) government. However, by 1931, that Labour government had collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald and a few followers had formed a National Government with the Conservatives and a Liberal part now divided into the Samuelites and the Simonites. Bar Lloyd George’s family, Labour was the only opposition to the National juggernaut. And it was an opposition shorn of its credibility in the crisis that had engulfed it. As a parliamentary force, Labour was all but obliterated, reduced to 52 seats.
That had been Baldwin’s intention. The Conservatives, dressed up in National clothing, were set to be in power in what must have looked like perpetuity. In 1935, Labour almost equaled the 8 million votes they won in 1929, but this time in only winning 154 seats. Had there been a 1939 or 1940 election, the government would surely have won comfortably again.
In the era bookended by Attlee and Blair’s landslides, the Conservatives were in power more often than not. In that era, Labour won five elections: 1950, 1964, 1966 and two in 1974. Only one of those gave Labour anything like a workable majority. The elections of 1951, 1966 and October 1974 were all aimed at winning a workable majority. However, in 1951 and 1974, this can hardly be seen as cynical opportunism. Rather, both look rather like a somewhat desperate roll of the dice. In 1951 the Conservatives were in pretty good nick; in 1974, neither Labour nor the Tories were strong.
Wilson pulled it off in 1966, and that election was undoubtedly a classic moment of Wilsonian opportunism (and Harold Wilson was very good at opportunism). It was, however, taking advantage of a wrong footed rather than failing opposition. It was a majority of 96, but one actually won by narrow margins, as 1970 would show.
There is another context to some of these elections that might seem similar to the position faced by Theresa May. 1966 is a classic example. Coming into government in 1964, Wilson faced a looming economic crisis. A combination of a long-term underperforming economy and an overvalued pound had been made far worse by Reginald Maudling’s cynical ‘dash for growth’. With a sterling crisis looming, Wilson went for it.
Similarly, one might feel that the October 1974 election was similar pre-emptive strike.
In both cases Wilson faced another problem: opposition within his own party, and even cabinet. Wilson’s governments were famously fractious. That made leading his first government hard enough. By 1974, however, Labour’s divisions, especially over Europe and between right and left, threatened to split the party (as it would in 1981). A working majority might have made Wilson’s task a little easier (though his 1966-70 government was hardly a paragon of unity; neither was Attlee’s second government, while we’re at it).
Even his most bitter opponent (by whom I mean Churchill) had to admit that Baldwin was a political operator par excellence (a means by which Churchill’s history writing would condemn him). One explanation for Baldwin’s decision in 1923 is that it was to forestall an attempt to rebuild a coalition with Lloyd George (who was rumoured to be toying with tariffs to that very purpose). What is certainly true is that Baldwin did not have the unalloyed support of the party’s grandees, most of who had been coalitionists and had not served under Bonar Law (hence the government’s nickname of the 2nd XI). One interpretation of 1923 sees Baldwin going for tariff reform as means of securing his control over his party.
If that was his intention, losing office hardly strengthened his position. However, after his defeat in 1929 he certainly was vulnerable. The attack came form within the broad Conservative tent over India and, once again tariffs. It was second issue that saw the immediate threat to Baldwin’s position. Baldwin had never had much time for his own Conservative press barons: in particular, for the owners the Mail and the Express. And Hell, or rather Conservative politics, had no fury like press barons scorned. In the end, Baldwin saw off the threat from their Empire Crusade, and with it that of his own right.
In that he was surely helped by the obvious failing’s of MacDonald’s Labour government. In forming a National Government, and then by winning in 1931, Baldwin had plenty of Conservatives who owed their seats and the prospect of keeping them to their leader. That majority also enabled Baldwin to isolate his own enemies within. Thus the likes of Churchill were confined to ranting on about India, Edward VIII and appeasement; the wilder shores of the right could play with Mosley or become fellow travellers of Hitler and Mussolini. Baldwin had routed them.
And, lastly, those snap elections sometimes had outcomes that were perhaps unexpected. Labour’s win in 1974 hardly had a happy outcome for them and, arguably, enabled the coming of Thatcherism. 1951 ushered in 13 years of Conservative rule. The immediate outcome of the 1923 election was the first Labour government. I suspect many Tories expected the 1931 landslide to give them a more robustly right-wing government; they got something very different.
I suspect that many Conservatives are now dreaming of a 1931-lite, and they may well get one in the form of a thumping majority offering them the opportunity to secure another long run in government, like those of the Thatcher, Macmillan and Baldwin eras. It would also give May the equivalent of MacDonald’s ‘doctor’s mandate’ (a Brexiteer’s mandate, we might call it); it would certainly give the decision to leave the European Union true democratic legitimacy having now been agreed by both parliament and by its inclusion in a general election manifesto. The issue is then how would she use it? She might use it to secure the so-called Hard Brexit some seem to so desire.
It is pretty early to judge May as a prime minister, or to make certain comparisons with Tory leaders before her (though I’m putting a few bob on some comparisons with Ted Heath, but a Ted Heath with no opposition of any worth). But, if in nothing else, she already resembles Baldwin in one way: her ability to best her enemy within and use those oh so sharp elbows (just ask the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Gove; there are, I’m sure, more to come). It is perhaps possible that she might resemble Baldwin in another sense and use the dominance a big win would secure to enable her to do what an orderly and negotiated Brexit might require, even the dreaded transitional arrangements and compromise?
Who knows? But what snap elections of yore show us is that they don’t always work, and when they do they sometimes have unexpected outcomes.
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