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UK: A disunited kingdom

Jonathan Clark offers a historian’s perspective on what the recent general election might mean for Britain’s future political make up.

They were elected with a landslide majority in 1906, with an array of talented leaders, backed by broad social constituencies and claiming plausibly to embody the highest ideals of progress. Yet after 1922 they were sidelined, an irrelevance for the rest of the 20th century. The strange death of Liberal England has fascinated historians ever since the publication of George Dangerfield’s 1935 study of that name, dividing them between the adherents of determinism and those of contingency. Is this scenario now being replayed with Labour in the Liberals’ stead?

Something important but not yet fully understood may have happened with the 2010 general election. Historians will pronounce on its implications when hindsight makes it safe to do so. But we might now begin to ask some questions. Does the election herald a new politics? Widespread euphoria signals a sense that something momentous has happened. But what?

Commentators talked first of the advance of democracy: the possibility of proportional representation (PR) promises to complete the democratic project begun in 1832. Yet the Whiggish teleology fails if 2010 marked instead a series of leaps into the psephological dark.

One problem is that ideas of political representation – and so of what counts as a democratic mandate – are matters of convention and change greatly over time. The single-member constituency using first-past-the-post, with each elector casting just one vote by secret ballot, is a late Victorian invention. In the 18th century the norm was for most constituencies to return two members, each elector having two votes. The result was clear: electorates seldom unseated ministries and the wider political discourse rang with accusations of ‘tyranny’.

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