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.


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Signposts: British General Elections


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.