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A Short History of UK general elections

by Kathryn Hadley

When today’s newspapers are filled with stories about the general election, only ‘The Modern Historian’ seems to have remembered that 43 years ago, May 6th 1967, was also a historic day in India. On May 6th 1967, the electoral college of the Republic of India cast their vote in favour of the country’s first Muslim President. Dr. Zakir Hussain became a week later, on May 13th 1967.

On the website of The Times, Antonia Senior also highlights another important anniversary, which risks being overshadowed by today’s electoral fever: the Stuart Restoration of May 8th, 1660. However, interestingly in our April issue Derek Wilson argues that for most of the population, the Restoration had little effect and life under Charles II was much the same as it was under Cromwell.

Thirdly, it is also important to pay homage to those women who devoted their lives to the fight for female suffrage: Millicent Fawcett who founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage; Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU); Emily Wilding Davison, who became the first Suffragette martyr when she threw herself in front of the king’s horse during the Derby races of 1913… In ‘The fight for a woman’s right to vote’, the Virtual Victorian provides a summary of the history of the fight for female suffrage. ‘Deeds, not Words’ was the motto of the WSPU and in our article of the same name, June Purvis charts the career of the founder of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, suggesting that she may have been misrepresented and misunderstood.

Did you know that Scottish men played a significant role in the campaign to get women the vote in the years before the First World War? Leah Leneman explores the forgotten part played by men in the female suffrage movement in Britain in ‘Northern Men and Votes for Women’.

Lastly, to mark today’s general election here are the top three articles from our archive charting the history British general elections. In January this year, in the midst of the scandal over MP’s expenses, Trevor Fischer explained in ‘The Old Corruption’ that our parliament was far from being 'the most corrupt parliament ever'; in the 18th century, bribery was rife and rigged elections were common and gaining public office was a means to private wealth.

Labour came into office for the first time in January 1924, with the election of Ramsay Macdonald as Prime Minister. In ‘The Last Hurrah’, York Membery suggests that if the Liberals had done better in the 1923 polls, they would have formed a minority government with Labour support and 20th century political history would have been very different. Has the moment come for the return of the Liberals?

In January 1979, temperatures of -7ºC were recorded at Heathrow. They fell much further to -17ºC at Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire and flights from Heathrow were cancelled or heavily delayed. In ‘Labour Wasn’t Working’, John Shepherd looks back to the Winter of Discontent explaining how it heralded the demise of the Labour government and paved the way for Margaret Thatcher and 18 years of unbroken Conservative rule. This scenario sounds eerily familiar. Will the results of today’s election see history repeating itself? Will the recession pave the way for the return of a Conservative government?


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