Some Thoughts on Tory Leaders of Yore: Andrew Bonar Law

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As the Conservatives march on towards victory, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of the lesser lights, as some might see them, among past Tory leaders. And I thought I’d start with one many haven’t even heard of.

Andrew Bonar Law was, like his true successor Stanley Baldwin, a latecomer to political life, taking the Tory leadership just 11 years after first entering the commons. If Baldwin had little ministerial experience before becoming the leader of what was then the Unionists, Bonar Law had none. However, he had other virtues which commended him to his party.

After the landslide win in the khaki election of 1900 that saw Bonar Law enter parliament, the death of Queen Victoria allowed an ailing Lord Salisbury to retire and be succeeded by his nephew, AJ Balfour. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Balfour proved to be a disastrous leader. This considerable cloud had a even more considerable silver lining for Bonar Law, at least.

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In the first place, he wasn’t Balfour. Balfour (above) was a Cecil, a brilliant, languid aristocrat, of Eton and Oxford, the quintessential Tory insider. Bonar Law, in contrast, was an outsider. He was born in and spent his earlier childhood years in Canada (the only British prime minister to have been born outside the British Isles), and his accent retained a Canadian twang. He was from an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian background (his seemingly dour exterior is often supposed to have been matched by a no less dour interior, (probably informed by his Calvinist upbringing, and deepened by the profound grief he felt after his wife’s untimely death in 1909).; in fact, he was a far more sympathetic and likeable man. He made his career (from a family who were not rich) in banking and the iron business. Thus, as is often the case in politics, especially Conservative politics, the fact that he was in considerable contrast to the fallen predecessor did him quite a few favours.

He was also lucky. When Balfour finally went in 1911, he left no obvious successor, and he also faced a party keen to heal past divisions, and eager to settle the leadership issue. The years of Balfour’s leadership were not happy ones for the Conservatives. In the first place, they lost three general elections on the trot ( a rate they would not suffer again until the advent of Tony Blair).

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Worse than that, under Balfour the party had torn itself apart over the issue of tariffs. In 1903, the great Liberal Unionist, Joseph Chamberlain (above) called upon his party to abandon free trade and adopt Tariff Reform. It would prove both electorally disastrous (being the main reason for the Liberal landslide of 1906) and politically disastrous for the Tories. In short, it split the party down the middle. As the divided deepened, and Balfour tried to bridge the divide, the fiercest protagonists of the tariff cause turned their attacks on they man: it got bitter and vituperative: tariffs did for Balfour wha Europe did for Major and his successors.

Bonar Law favoured tariffs, and made his name in the party as one of Chamberlain’s most eloquent and forceful advocates. This had a political advantage. When Joseph Chamberlain was felled by a stroke, Bonar Law, along with Joseph’s son Austen, became the leading spokesman of the pro-tariff wing of the party, but without the continuing enmity against Balfour that Chamberlain and others carried with them. He further cemented his reputation thanks to some robust attacks upon the free trade turncoat, Churchill.

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It got worse. The House of Lords crisis provoked by Lloyd George’s People’s Budget saw the Tory party divide again, between those who (in the end) were willing to settle, the Hedgers, and those wanted to fight top the last ditch. One of Bonar Law’s virtues was a common sense pragmatism, often disguised by fierce rhetoric.  Bonar Law saw the Ditchers as unrealistic, and sided with the majority in accepting the 1911 Parliament Act.

The whole business finished Balfour. Bonar Law was the best choice of leader, as Austen Chamberlain was unacceptable to Balfour loyalists, and Walter Long was unacceptable to Chamberlain’s supporters. Bonar Law, a man for tariffs, but who had remained loyal to Balfour, seemed the obvious choice to try and reunite a bitterly divided and demoralised party.

It was an unhappy inheritance. He was also faced with a constitutional time bomb, in the form of Irish Home Rule. It is hard for us to grasp just how convulsive an issue this was: not just in Ireland, but in British politics. Back in 1886, Home Rule had led Joseph Chamberlain to cross the floor and become a Liberal Unionist; it had led the Conservatives to rechristen themselves the Unionist Party. Unionism remained a vital issue in British politics, and opposition to Home Rule was widespread and very bitter in Britain itself. For Bonar Law, with his Presbyterian Ulster Scot and Glaswegian background, the pull of Protestant politics was strong. It also offered a political opportunity, enabling Bonar Law to revivify and energise his party.

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We might expect it to be an issue that would have united Unionism, and to some extent it did. However, it divided too. The first problem was opposition on which terms. For some, Home Rule had to be stopped in the whole of Ireland: the true cause was Unionism. For others, the South was lost and the real issue was Ulster. Bonar Law saw the second case as the stronger (thus attracting the enmity of his rival, Walter Long, for example). Politically, the Ulster option made sense. Catholics made up the clear majority if Ireland as a whole, but in Ulster Protestants did. Not only that, but they Ulster Protestants were organised, militant, armed and well led by Sir Edward Carson (below) and James Craig.

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It was their militant resistance that propelled Ireland towards armed rebellion and Westminster towards the most dangerous constitutional crisis in our modern history. Politically, this had potentially great political dividends for Bonar Law and his party. As the crisis grew in intensity, over the two years it took to get the legislation through parliament, Bonar Law was able to rely upon his Ulster allies, and his own increasingly rabble rousing conduct in the Commons, to destabilise the government. By the summer of 1914, it looked possible that Home Rule mighty bring the government down.

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In private, towards Asquith and in the constitutional convention called by the king in 1914, Bonar Law was more conciliatory. The problem was that he was riding a tiger, in the form of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Protestant leadership. And even the leadership could not necessarily contain their own followers, let alone Bonar Law control them. In riding that tiger, he traversed dangerous ground. His famous 1912 words, uttered at Blenheim, have not aged well: ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities’.

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In the end, the Kaiser put a stop to the crisis, but not before Bonar Law had led his party to the brink of becoming unconstitutional. Had the king followed them, as he had been tempted to do, and refused to give the royal assent to the Home Rule Bill, Bonar Law could have been remembered as the man who led the country away from parliamentary and constitutional politics. Had he backed down too far, he would have been a weak and failed leader in a party convulsed by crisis and division.

There is a decent argument for saying that there are three figures who saved the Conservative party from that fate. One might be the Kaiser, another was Baldwin; the most important was Bonar Law.

Politically speaking, war gave the Conservatives a way back into government. By May 1915 Bonar Law was able, in effect, to force Asquith to offer a coalition, though his ability to do that owed no small amount to the desire of Liberals such as Lloyd George for a coalition too. The weakness of his position is perhaps evident in the post he took, colonial secretary. But he was in government. His position was still not strong, and Ireland still threatened. Following the 1916 Easter Rising, Lloyd George had proposed the introduction of a temporary form of Home Rule, excluding Ulster. Bonar Law, showing the capacity to compromise he had in 1914, backed this idea (which never got off the ground): there was bitter opposition from many on his own side.

IMG_3360His growing frustration with Asquith’s leadership was a genuine phenomenon. But Bonar Law was always able to ally principle and pragmatism, even opportunism. Just as important was his growing relationship with Lloyd George, partly fostered by the relationship both men had with Max Aitken (the future Lord Beaverbrook, left). It is often asserted that Asquith was sacrificed on the altar of Lloyd George’s ambition, but little regard is given to Bonar Law’s. Throughout 1916, Bonar Law’s influence had grown, but Asquith remained distant and reluctant, and the Tory position in the government remained somewhat peripheral.

The creation of the National Government offered a chance to transform the Conservative position, and withy that Bonar Law’s. When Asquith resigned, the king (as he was constitutionally bound to do) offered the job to Bonar Law. Whether Bonar Law did or didn’t want it is unclear, but he needed Lloyd George’s support to deliver enough Liberals to make the government viable, and the best way of securing that was to make Lloyd George prime minister (he had also made a prior commitment to him). There was an element of political self-sacrifice to it, but there was also an element of political self-interest too. The new cabinet had a Liberal PM, and other Liberal ministers, but it was dominated by Tories. Apart from, Lloyd George himself, Bonar Law was its key member. The two met every morning and developed a close working relationship. Bonar Law, and his party, were back at the centre of government.

Sir James Guthrie’s Seven Statesmen of the Great War shows Bonar Law and Lloyd George.

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It is possible to see Bonar Law’s decision to fight the 1918 election under the coalition banner as an act of political selflessness: if it was, it was very well rewarded. Under the Coupon, the Tories won an outright majority in the Commons. Lloyd George was PM, but the Conservatives were dominant. Realistically, Bonar Law made a political calculation. Lloyd George was the man who won the war. The Coupon whereby Bonar Law and Lloyd George sanctioned Conservative or Lloyd George supporting Liberals (and a few Labour) candidates, virtually guaranteed the Conservatives a majority in the Commons, and in the government.

In the two years that followed, Bonar Law was the glue that held the Lloyd George coalition together. Nor did he actively oppose suggestions that the Lloyd George Liberals and the Conservatives might merge under the label of a Centre Party: what became known as Fusion. That idea failed to get off the ground, but the coalition continued effectively enough.

They formed an unlikely, but highly successful partnership. Lloyd George once relayed a conversation he had whilst driving along a scenic European coast. Lloyd George lauded Mozart, Bonar Law replied, ‘I don’t care for music’. Next, Lloyd George hymned the beauty of the sea on one side of them and the mountains on the other and Bonar Law retorted that he didn’t ‘care for scenery’. When Lloyd George pointed to a group of beautiful women (certainly always a matter of interest to the Goat), Law responded that he did not care for women. Finally, Lloyd George asked, ‘Then what the hell do you care for?’ Bonar Law replied: ‘I like bridge’. What Lloyd George did come to value was Bonar Law’s capacity for hard work, his political nous and his absolute integrity, and his plain speaking: the dry wit surely helped. Their mutual friend Beaverbrook said of Bonar Law, ‘I have met one honest politician’; Austen Chamberlain, twice defeated by him, described him as ‘that most loveable man’. Some of that Bonar Law can be seen in Sir James Guthrie’s study, courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland.

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In the end, Lloyd George and Bonar Law made the ‘perfect political partnership’. But it was Bonar Law that did for Lloyd George.

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By January 1921, Bonar Law was ill, suffering from high blood pressure, and on medical advice he retired from government. It wasn’t until late 1921 that he returned to active politics, in defence of Ulster’s right to be excluded from the new Irish Free State created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Satisfied that it was, he remained loyal to Lloyd George.

However, the sands of the Conservative Party were shifting. In the first place, increasing numbers of backbench MPs were increasingly hostile to the coalition. Secondly, Bonar Law’s successor as leader, Austen Chamberlain, was seen as both ineffective and too close to Lloyd George. As Bonar Law returned, he was seen by many as the better alternative, and he was told so.

For the time being, he stayed publicly supportive of both Lloyd George and Chamberlain. That changed in the autumn. When Lloyd George appeared to be leading Britain towards military conflict with Turkey over the Chanak Crisis, Bonar Law had letters published in The Times and his old friend Beaverbrook’s Daily Express criticising Lloyd George: Britain could not act as ‘the policeman of the world’.

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There was something else afoot. By the autumn, there would be an election within a year, and the question of the terms upon which that election would be fought polarised the Tory Party. Many backbenchers wanted to fight it as an independent Conservative party; Austen Chamberlain (left) favoured another Coupon, or even Fusion. To press the point, Chamberlain called a meeting at the Carlton Club. The day before, a Conservative had won a by-election in Newport. At that meeting, Baldwin spoke against the coalition; Curzon made it known that he was opposed too.

The intervention that sealed its fate was Bonar Law’s. By all accounts, he made his mind up on the day itself, stating that the best way to unite the party was to ditch the coalition. He surely realised it would not only finish Lloyd George, but Austen Chamberlain too. In that case, he was the obvious alternative. Alan Clark nicknamed it ‘the peasant’s revolt’, but unlike the real thing these peasants had an alternative king to look to. Upon kissing hands, he called a general election and, with the opposition divided, 38% of the popular vote gave the Conservatives a majority of 77: the modern Conservative party was born (its backbenchers still meet as the 1922 Committee).

Bonar Law was at last able to enter Number Ten as prme minister.

Sadly, he had just ten short months, before throat cancer forced his retirement. Famously, when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, Asquith was allegedly heard to refer to him as the ‘unknown prime minister’. In truth, Asquith was broadly right. But it was what Bonar Law achieved for his party that gives him his place in British history.

And that mattered. The Conservative party reborn in 1922 would spend much of the 20th century in power: the natural party of government. Almost more importantly than that, any earlier dalliance with extra-parliamentary or unconstitutional politics were to be confined top its wilder shores, and then beyond. The viability of a constitutional parliamentary Conservative party was central to the stability of Baldwinite Britain, and its unity in the Second World War. Bonar Law’s legacy was more considerable than sometimes averred.

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1859 and All That: the Conservatives, that Poll, and Wales

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I thought a few reflections on that opinion poll giving the Conservatives a healthy 10-point lead in Wales might be worthy of a little historical context. And the essence of that context is that a Conservative win in Wales would be unprecedented.
Were there to be a Conservative victory on June 8th, even if the Conservatives were to win narrowly, it would be fair to say it would be the greatest political upheaval since Labour became the largest single party in Wales in 1922.

One might go even further. The 1922 election saw Labour supplant the Liberals in a raft of seats across the country, as that election amounts to one of the key staging posts in the death of the old Liberal party. Between the coming of the household suffrage that gave the votes to around 60% of adult males and the Great War, the Liberals won every election in Wales, with the lion’s share of the popular vote and a majority of seats. At their high point, just as Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide left the Tories without a seat in Wales, so did the Liberal landslide of 1906. The Tories had last won in Wales in 1859 (and that was hardly the era of mass politics: only 2,767 votes were cast for the Conservatives across the whole of Wales to 1,585 Liberal).

Thus, since the advent of modern party politics, the Tories have never won in Wales. 19th century Conservatives were strongly identified in Wales with the upper and middle classes, as well as being seen as the English party (they were strongest in predominantly English-speaking areas), and identified with the Anglican Church. The Liberals became, for many, the authentic voice of Welsh nonconformity and the Welsh language, even of a Welsh identity in itself. In that context, popular Toryism never gained the traction it did in England and Scotland (nor did opposition to Irish Home Rule). Thus, compared to the rest of Britain, politics in Wales was heavily and consistently slanted against the Conservatives. Indeed, after the Tories won 10 seats in 1868 and 14 in 1874, they never broke the 10 barrier again when facing a dominant Liberal party. In short, a Conservative win in Wales would be something very new.

The demise of a great party in Wales would not be. If the recent collapse of Labour in Scotland should offer Labour one warning, so should the history of Labour and the Liberals in Wales.

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The death of Liberalism in Wales was hardly instant. Nor should this surprise us, the Liberals had deep roots in Welsh life. The non-conformism that remained strong gave Welsh Liberalism the fire in its political belly, and a language of politics: think of Lloyd George (a lay preacher himself, preaching in Welsh). As in the rest of Great Britain, Labour became a national party just as Liberalism was in crisis. In 1922, Labour gained the most seats in part thanks to a bitterly divided Liberalism, and thanks to the vagaries of the British electoral system: if we combined the votes for the ‘Squiffite and Lloyd George Liberals, something around 35% of Welsh voters were Liberal (the figure a hastily reunited party secured in 1923). In the Liberal calamity of 1924, when they were reduced to 18% of the UK popular votes and 40 seats, 10 of those seats were Welsh and they still polled 31% of the Welsh popular vote. Welsh Liberalism was die a lingering death: in 1945, 6 of the 12 Liberal MPs in the commons sat in Welsh seats.
And, its new leader in 1945 was the Member for Montgomeryshire, Clement Davies. From 1949, his deputy was none other than Megan Lloyd George.

Megan Lloyd George’s story is instructive. Throughout the ‘thirties she had moved to the left; her party did not. She was well known to be on good terms with Attlee, a rumours of her defection to Labour were commonplace in the ‘forties. In 1951, she lost her Anglesey seat to Labour, and defected the following year, going on to become the Labour MP for Carmarthen. Labour was the only place to go for a figure on the centre-left.

The explanation for that takes us back to the fact that position Labour won in 1922 proved impregnable. In that election, Labour won 40% of the Welsh vote, and 18 seats (the support of the Miners’ Federation was hardly insignificant). Even at their lowest points, in 1924 and 1931, they held onto 16 and 20 seats (with Independent Labour included). In 1945, Labour won 25 of Wales’ 35 seats; in 1966, they won 32 of 36. That dominance looked threatened by nationalism in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies: Plaid Cymru eroded some of Labour’s vote, but never get beyond the odd by election victory, the odd seat or two, and roughly 10% . Even though Thatcher saw the Conservatives secure the most seats since their Victorian heyday, winning 11 and 14 seats in 1979 and 1983 respectively, Labour recovered and, famously, as noted above, in Blair’s 1997 landslide the Tories won no seats at all.

Nor has Labour’s decline from that heady peak been either sudden or apparently terminal. When Brown lost in 2010, Labour’s position had slipped, but they still polled 36% and won 26 seats. In 2015, their popular vote held up. Both 2010 and 2015 saw Conservative gains: in 2015 they polled 27% and had 11 seats, but were still well adrift of Labour. There was talk of the UKIP threat to Labour, but they polled 13.6% in 2015.

It may, of course, be just one poll. But the fact that observers are seriously considering the possibility of a Tory win in Wales must send a shudder down the spine of Welsh Labour. It might seem there are three outliers that might be changing things this time round: a collapse in the UKIP vote, Brexit in a Wales that voted Leave, and Jeremy Corbyn. Might they do to Labour what war, the Lloyd George-Asquith split and the Miners’ Federation did to their Liberal forbears in 1922? And might a seismic change be coming to Welsh politics just as it has to Scotland’s? Forward, perhaps, to 1859!

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Snap Elections We Have Known: 1923, 1931, 1951, 1966 and 1974 (October)… Oh yes, and 2017

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I don’t suppose I’m alone in believing that Theresa May’s stated reasons for calling a snap election were both paper thin and transparently disingenuous. That is not necessarily intended as a condemnation. This is politics after all, and May has proved pretty effective at the dark arts.

Immediately after yesterday’s announcement of a 2017 general election (the joys, the joys), an old student mine (take a bow Jacob Baxter) immediately tipped a hat to 1923. And that got me thinking, what about snap general elections we have known?

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And there we begin. All the elections outlined above were called at a moment of the then prime minister’s choosing, more or less. True, in 1931, it was really Baldwin rather than MacDonald who sought the ‘doctor’s mandate’, but MacDonald obeyed His Master’s Voice and went to the country. Attlee’s (mistaken) choice of October 1951 was constrained by George VI’s imminent departure on a royal tour, but it was his call. If we were to count the first 1974 election (and I’m not really inclined to, that was a gamble taken, again mistakenly by a much buffeted figure). In short, each of the were all the PM’s call, just as this one in May’s call.

In all but one case, they all have something else in common. May has gone to the country for one reason above all others: she believes that her wafer thin majority will be transformed into a comfortable majority (and quite possibly a landslide). Here, the election she might have in mind is 1966. After 13 years in opposition, Harold Wilson had got Labour across the line with a majority of just four. The 44% of the popular vote Labour won in 1964 was pretty much the same as they had won in 1959, which had seen Macmillan’s Tories win a 100 seat majority. Wilson won in 1964 primarily thanks to a Liberal resurgence and a commensurate fall in the Conservative vote. No less important was the fact that Labour won 20 seats thanks to a Liberal standing in 1964 where none had stood in 1959 (a full analysis can be read here).

A majority of four was not viable, and in March 1966 Wilson took the plunge. A small fall in the Liberal vote and a slightly larger fall in the Tory vote allowed the British electoral system to do its work and gave Wilson a majority of 96.

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Wilson tried the same trick in October 1974. The February election (read about it here) had been, in effect, a score draw and Labour got the toss of the electoral system coin and were four seats ahead of the Conservatives, but short of an overall majority. Thus it was Wilson went in the October, hoping to turn that into an overall majority. He succeeded, but it was a pyrrhic victory, giving Labour a majority of just three with some extremely choppy waters ahead.

At least Wilson won. In 1950, Attlee’s Labour had seen their 1945 landslide wiped out, and (despite polling more votes than in 1945) won a majority of just five seats. Seeing this as unworkable, Attlee went to the country again in October 1951, hoping to increase that majority. 1951 is one of those textbook first-past-the –post elections (you can read about the elections of 1950 and 1951 here, and here). Attlee succeeded in one sense: Labour won 48.8% of the popular vote (the highest share in its history). However, a resurgent Conservative party won 48% (up by 5.6%), in large part thanks to a collapse in the liberal vote. That Liberal collapse, and their failure to field candidates in a number of Labour-Conservative marginals, gave Churchill his victory. Attlee had gambled, and lost.

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In 1923, Baldwin gambled. And Baldwin lost. He had not gone to the country for need of a more comfortable majority, as he already had a very comfortable one. Losing 86 seats, he then lost office.

Baldwin lost two elections. However, he is unique in modern British political history, winning three landslides. And the mother of all landslides was the snap election of 1931. As I always tell my students, the 1931 election is unique in all sorts of ways. Whatever else we might say about it (and I will shortly), there was no little party politics and calculation about Baldwin’s decision to force an election on MacDonald in 1931. It would, he knew, deliver a de facto Conservative landslide.

At least there was a genuine national emergency of sorts in 1931. The Great Depression was bad enough, but a lethal combination of the end of the Gold Standard and an unbalanced budget requiring sharp cuts in spending at least gave MacDonald a pretty convincing excuse for it. In truth (with the possible exception of February 1974, and I’m not counting that), there was no compelling national emergency requiring electoral endorsement at any other time.

Jacob Baxter’s point was that 1923 was, in effect, a single-issue election, just as some are coming to see 2017. Baldwin’s reasons for calling that election remain elusive (I will advance, even if not necessarily believing them, a few other explanations below). There is, I think, quite a lot to say for taking him at face value. Baldwin called an election in 1923 over the issue of tariffs. Ever since Joseph Chamberlain had first put the idea forward 20 years before, tariff reform had split the Conservatives down the middle. When the ‘peasant’s revolt’ at the Carlton Club ended the Lloyd George coalition and defenestrated Austen Chamberlain, Andrew Bonar Law had made a spectacular political comeback. He capped that with a comfortable victory in the subsequent general election. In that campaign, the characteristically cautious Bonar Law had tried to take the steam out of the tariff issue, which had hurt the Conservatives electorally so badly in 1906, but again in the two elections of 1910: all three of which they had lost. In short, he promised that there would be no move by a Conservative government towards the systematic implementation of tariffs without recourse to the electorate. Baldwin believed in tariffs. Thus Baldwin went to the country.

He lost. One reading of Baldwin’s 1923 decision was an over-confidence borne of the state of the opposition. First and foremost, the Liberals were bitterly divided between the Lloyd George Liberals and the ‘Squiffites (ironically, the 1923 election saw them reunite after a fashion). Then, the new Labour party further divided that opposition. Thus it was, in 1922, that the Conservatives had a comfortable majority of 72 whilst only commanding 38.5% of the vote (they only fielded 482 candidates).

Baldwin’s gamble failed, primarily because the Liberals, who hastily reunited around the classic Liberal issue of free trade, polled just under 30% and won 158 seats. Labour polled just over 30%, and won 191 seats. The opposition were in far better fettle than Baldwin envisaged.

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Baldwin’s next snap election had a very different outcome. This time, the opposition parties were in anything but fine fettle. The Liberals were in something very like their death throes. The general election of 1924 had reduced them to 40 seats. A Liberal recovery of sorts, allied to Labour winning 37% of the popular vote in 1929 had been enough to see the Conservatives lose 152 seats and leave Labour as the largest party and into (minority) government. However, by 1931, that Labour government had collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald and a few followers had formed a National Government with the Conservatives and a Liberal part now divided into the Samuelites and the Simonites. Bar Lloyd George’s family, Labour was the only opposition to the National juggernaut. And it was an opposition shorn of its credibility in the crisis that had engulfed it. As a parliamentary force, Labour was all but obliterated, reduced to 52 seats.

That had been Baldwin’s intention. The Conservatives, dressed up in National clothing, were set to be in power in what must have looked like perpetuity. In 1935, Labour almost equaled the 8 million votes they won in 1929, but this time in only winning 154 seats. Had there been a 1939 or 1940 election, the government would surely have won comfortably again.

In the era bookended by Attlee and Blair’s landslides, the Conservatives were in power more often than not. In that era, Labour won five elections: 1950, 1964, 1966 and two in 1974. Only one of those gave Labour anything like a workable majority. The elections of 1951, 1966 and October 1974 were all aimed at winning a workable majority. However, in 1951 and 1974, this can hardly be seen as cynical opportunism. Rather, both look rather like a somewhat desperate roll of the dice. In 1951 the Conservatives were in pretty good nick; in 1974, neither Labour nor the Tories were strong.

Wilson pulled it off in 1966, and that election was undoubtedly a classic moment of Wilsonian opportunism (and Harold Wilson was very good at opportunism). It was, however, taking advantage of a wrong footed rather than failing opposition. It was a majority of 96, but one actually won by narrow margins, as 1970 would show.

There is another context to some of these elections that might seem similar to the position faced by Theresa May. 1966 is a classic example. Coming into government in 1964, Wilson faced a looming economic crisis. A combination of a long-term underperforming economy and an overvalued pound had been made far worse by Reginald Maudling’s cynical ‘dash for growth’. With a sterling crisis looming, Wilson went for it.

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Similarly, one might feel that the October 1974 election was similar pre-emptive strike.

In both cases Wilson faced another problem: opposition within his own party, and even cabinet. Wilson’s governments were famously fractious. That made leading his first government hard enough. By 1974, however, Labour’s divisions, especially over Europe and between right and left, threatened to split the party (as it would in 1981). A working majority might have made Wilson’s task a little easier (though his 1966-70 government was hardly a paragon of unity; neither was Attlee’s second government, while we’re at it).

Even his most bitter opponent (by whom I mean Churchill) had to admit that Baldwin was a political operator par excellence (a means by which Churchill’s history writing would condemn him). One explanation for Baldwin’s decision in 1923 is that it was to forestall an attempt to rebuild a coalition with Lloyd George (who was rumoured to be toying with tariffs to that very purpose). What is certainly true is that Baldwin did not have the unalloyed support of the party’s grandees, most of who had been coalitionists and had not served under Bonar Law (hence the government’s nickname of the 2nd XI). One interpretation of 1923 sees Baldwin going for tariff reform as means of securing his control over his party.

If that was his intention, losing office hardly strengthened his position. However, after his defeat in 1929 he certainly was vulnerable. The attack came form within the broad Conservative tent over India and, once again tariffs. It was second issue that saw the immediate threat to Baldwin’s position. Baldwin had never had much time for his own Conservative press barons: in particular, for the owners the Mail and the Express. And Hell, or rather Conservative politics, had no fury like press barons scorned. In the end, Baldwin saw off the threat from their Empire Crusade, and with it that of his own right.

In that he was surely helped by the obvious failing’s of MacDonald’s Labour government. In forming a National Government, and then by winning in 1931, Baldwin had plenty of Conservatives who owed their seats and the prospect of keeping them to their leader. That majority also enabled Baldwin to isolate his own enemies within. Thus the likes of Churchill were confined to ranting on about India, Edward VIII and appeasement; the wilder shores of the right could play with Mosley or become fellow travellers of Hitler and Mussolini. Baldwin had routed them.

And, lastly, those snap elections sometimes had outcomes that were perhaps unexpected. Labour’s win in 1974 hardly had a happy outcome for them and, arguably, enabled the coming of Thatcherism. 1951 ushered in 13 years of Conservative rule. The immediate outcome of the 1923 election was the first Labour government. I suspect many Tories expected the 1931 landslide to give them a more robustly right-wing government; they got something very different.

I suspect that many Conservatives are now dreaming of a 1931-lite, and they may well get one in the form of a thumping majority offering them the opportunity to secure another long run in government, like those of the Thatcher, Macmillan and Baldwin eras. It would also give May the equivalent of MacDonald’s ‘doctor’s mandate’ (a Brexiteer’s mandate, we might call it); it would certainly give the decision to leave the European Union true democratic legitimacy having now been agreed by both parliament and by its inclusion in a general election manifesto. The issue is then how would she use it? She might use it to secure the so-called Hard Brexit some seem to so desire.

It is pretty early to judge May as a prime minister, or to make certain comparisons with Tory leaders before her (though I’m putting a few bob on some comparisons with Ted Heath, but a Ted Heath with no opposition of any worth). But, if in nothing else, she already resembles Baldwin in one way: her ability to best her enemy within and use those oh so sharp elbows (just ask the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Gove; there are, I’m sure, more to come). It is perhaps possible that she might resemble Baldwin in another sense and use the dominance a big win would secure to enable her to do what an orderly and negotiated Brexit might require, even the dreaded transitional arrangements and compromise?

Who knows? But what snap elections of yore show us is that they don’t always work, and when they do they sometimes have unexpected outcomes.

 

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