In October 1951 the prime minister decided to call a general election. He wrote to the leader of the opposition informally (“My dear Churchill”) to let him know, before Parliament was dissolved, and polling day took place less than three weeks later. Clement Attlee was displeased by the outcome, with some reason: the Labour Party he had previously led to victory in two elections won a slightly larger popular vote than the Conservatives, but the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of parliamentary seats. And so Winston Churchill returned to 10 Downing Street, shortly before his seventy-seventh birthday.
To look back at that election and to compare it with this year’s is to see the complete transformation of British politics in my lifetime. Even though we now have a Conservative government with a parliamentary majority for the first time in eighteen years, there was another startling outcome in Scotland, quite unimagined as late as last summer. A generation ago the Scottish National Party (SNP) was a tiny fringe group advocating Scottish independence, and at the last election in 2010 it won a mere six seats. This May it won fifty-six of fifty-nine seats in Scotland.
Another fringe group, as it had long seemed, the right-wing Europhobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), gained a dramatic 13 percent of the popular vote. Thanks to the capricious electoral system, this gave it a solitary MP, but the indirect effect of the UKIP vote was very important in drawing votes away from Labour.
One unhappy change is that the prime minister no longer chooses to call an election as Attlee did. The decision has now been taken out of the prime minister’s hands by the deplorable Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was passed when the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was arranged five years ago, as a way of yoking the two together, but it not only weakened the power of Parliament, it meant that we have known for years that there would be an election this May 7. The effect was to paralyze the government for months before polling day, and to give us the unending electoral cycle that afflicts American politics.
But if there was no shock about the date, there was about the result. In 1951 Labour hoped to win again, and barely lost. This year, there was an almost universal assumption that no party would win an outright majority of parliamentary seats, and that we were in for the kind of wrangling between parties that follows a Belgian or Israeli election. Labour seriously hoped to win at the least the largest number of seats, allowing it to form a coalition or minority government, and…
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