Khaki Election 1900

18 Jan

The British General Election of 1900 was something of a watershed. The last election held in Victorian Britain. The last election where the sitting Prime Minister did not campaign. The first election to elect Winston Churchill. The first “Khaki” election. The last Election that saw Liberal Unionism as a force. The first election for the Labour Party.The election that cashed in on a military victory that then bounced.

The Conservative and Unionist Coalition were defending a strong position. Having seen a marked upturn in economic production due to the boer war , and seen a marked upturn in military fortune Lord Salisbury decided , after “only” 5 years that Parliament should be dissolved. He was cashing in , going early, cutting and running. Turning the enthusiasm for chocolate tins with the Queen on, into votes. Voting took place over a month in September / October 1900. The Government had suffered a number of by-election losses prior to the war , but in the early stages of the war its popularity rose. Then as military action took its toll and Britain seemed , well at risk of defeat, its fortunes dipped. By the time Mafeking was relieved the Government was ascending.

Politically the war was the issue above all others, and the Liberals were not even clearly opposed to it. The Government appeared united , the opposition less so. Joseph Chamberlain, the main architect of the war in Government, was keen to capitalise on the coming military victory and drive a wedge through the opposition. Salisbury though was less enthusiastic about a “snap” election – Parliament ran for 7 years back then.

The Liberals couldn’t contest 163 constituencies, while the unionists contested all bar 22. This was a remarkable start for the Government. Salisbury  was a declining star and played little role in the campaign ( and nor should he as someone who couldn’t vote or wasn’t a candidate ). Chamberlain though did. He portrayed factions of the Liberal party as being pro-boer. Every seat lost was one for the boer. Quite how he said this is still the subject of some debate, but the message was heard. The Liberals though were clearly split between those who supported the war, those opposed to it and those who couldn’t really figure it out at all.

For the Liberals  Chamberlain was a good target. The man who had divided the party and alleged corruption in the last Liberal Government was someone whose family manufactured munitions. As Lloyd George remarked ” as the empire expands, the Chamberlains contract”.

The Unionists increased their majority from dissolution, the first time this had happened in 35 years. The dominance over the political scene of the coalition was remarkable.They received over 50% of the vote and over 60% of the seats.

The interesting aspects of the 1900 election are that it was a purely political affair. No great issue divided the parties or required a mandate, unlike many 19th century elections. The dissolution was focussed on capitalising on the Governments position and portraying the opposition as being anti-empire and pro-boer, simply because they weren’t the Government.

By 1906 the Unionists were in disarray, split by the ever probing Chamberlain over tariff reform. The Liberals were back in Government, winning a landslide, Queen Victoria had died, the Labour Party were here to stay and Salisbury had long gone too.




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