Signposts: British General Elections

By Gamble, Andrew | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Signposts: British General Elections


Gamble, Andrew, History Today


With the general election now behind us, History Today is taking the opportunity to embrace the long view of British politics. Andrew Gamble queries what, if anything, elections have actually changed, while our reviewers consider a variety of approaches to writing--and sometimes overlooking--political history.

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A general election in Britain is held following the dissolution of Parliament. It is a general election because it covers all seats in the House of Commons. In the 18th century general elections were local elections, the electorate was tiny and many seats were decided by patronage rather than election. The meaning of general elections changed greatly in the 19th century with the gradual extension of the suffrage, the rise of party, the creation of constituencies with roughly equal numbers of voters, the introduction of secret ballots and the elimination of many of the abuses and anomalies that characterised the unreformed Parliament. Gradually, general elections became choices between two alternative governments and two alternative prime ministers, each presenting their own manifesto to the voters, with a statement of the policies they would seek to implement if elected. This process has been taken much further in the 20th century with the achievement of full universal suffrage, new techniques of party organisation and political campaigning and the influence of modern media.

Are general elections important? Politicians think so, understandably, since the results often determine the course of political careers. They are major events in the political calendar and in Britain they tend to be dramatic and decisive, either confirming a party and a group of leaders in office or rudely ejecting them. From this perspective general elections are central to an understanding of political history and how it unfolds. It provides the answer to one of the most basic political questions: who's in and who's out. Sequences of general election victories or defeats can establish a political pattern and they have often been used by political historians in the way that the reigns of monarchs once were, providing neat historical dividing lines.

The famous Nuffield series of election studies, edited by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh and now Philip Cowley, starts from the assumption that elections do matter and are not just sound and fury. Furthermore, some elections matter a lot because they are crucial not just in determining which party takes office, but in defining watersheds in political life, which can shape politics for a generation. The general elections of 1945 and 1979 led to the adoption of new ideological and policy frameworks within which the governments that followed were obliged or content to govern. There was a real choice and the electorate's decision gave legitimacy to a new direction, a turning point in political history. Much of the analysis of the Blair government is concerned with the question of whether 1997 was a watershed election in this sense, or whether New Labour operated within the political limits established by the Conservatives. In time, the 2010 election will be assessed for whether it too marks a watershed.

The opposing view argues that general elections often conceal more than they illuminate about political change and that the decisive changes in direction take place not at the time of general elections but as a result of policy decisions within government, caused by events and government reactions to them. Sometimes these events may reflect more deep-seated institutional changes and socio-economic trends. This view at its strongest, as in Richard Rose's Do Parties Make a Difference? (Palgrave Macmillan, 1984), holds that changes of the party in government have little influence on the long-term direction of policy. What really matters is the process of government itself and parties and elections are at best an entertaining but inconsequential sideshow. …

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