Bolting to the ballot box: Snap elections through history

With Britons about to vote in a snap election, Sarah Richardson reveals eight other years when the government sprang a surprise poll on the public

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now

The House of Commons sits 
in session in c1710. (Alamy)
The House of Commons sits 
in session in c1710, the year that 
riots, war and a controversial impeachment led to a snap election. (Alamy)

 

1710: Embattled Whigs gamble – and lose

Why was it called? 
Early 1710 saw the ruling Whig party coming under pressure on a number of fronts. Firstly, they failed to negotiate peace in the War of the Spanish Succession, thus losing popularity with a public (and monarch) weary of the costs of war.

Secondly, they tried to prosecute the clergyman Henry Sacheverell, who had delivered a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral attacking the Whigs’ policy of religious toleration. Sacheverell was found guilty – but the light sentence he received made the Whigs look weak.

Queen Anne was losing confidence in the Whigs’ allies, Lords Marlborough and Godolphin, and in August 1710 dismissed Godolphin as Lord Treasurer, replacing him with the Tory Robert Harley who became chancellor of the Exchequer. This led the government to dissolve parliament on 21 September, and call an election.

Did it work? No. The ensuing election, held in October–November 1710 (there was 
no fixed polling date until 1918), was a disaster for the Whigs and resulted in 
a landslide victory for the Tories. 
Returned for England and Wales were 329 Tories and 168 Whig MPs, with 
a few independents. 

The outcome was that the moderate Harley was pressured into appointing more extreme, ‘High Tory’ ministers, and introducing measures to reverse Whig policies on religious toleration.

 


Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, canvassing votes for Charles James Fox in exchange for kisses. (Bridgeman)
 

1784: George III meddles to oust Fox and North

Why was it called? Britain’s next snap election was sparked by a constitutional crisis caused by a clash between parliament and king.

In spring 1783, the radical Whig Charles James Fox joined forces with Lord North to overthrow the ruling ministry, headed by Lord Shelburne. This enraged George III, who despised Fox – so much so that the king dismissed the coalition and installed William Pitt the Younger as prime minister.

This interference by the monarch in the affairs of parliament was hugely controversial and Pitt, under pressure from the Foxite majority in the Commons, decided to go to the country to gain a mandate.



Did it work? 
Yes. Pitt, who had public opinion strongly behind him, won a majority 
of more than 100 seats. However, Fox’s notoriety and colourful reputation were greatly enhanced by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who canvassed vigorously for him, allegedly exchanging kisses for votes.

 


James Gillray parodies the Ministry of All 
the Talents, Grenville’s largely unsuccessful coalition 
government. (Bridgeman)

 

1807: Catholic question splits ineffectual coalition
 

Why was it called? Britons went to the polls in 1807 after the failure of a coalition government – the so-called Ministry of All the Talents. The Ministry – which contained Pittite Tories, Whigs and even the radical Charles James Fox as foreign secretary – wanted to allow Catholics to become officers in the army and navy. But George III vehemently opposed the measure and replaced the administration with a new one headed by the elderly Whig, the Duke of Portland, presiding over a largely Tory government. 

This minority government found it difficult to get measures through the House of Commons. So, though the last general election had been held less than six months earlier, the king allowed the dissolution of parliament.



Did it work? Yes. The Tories achieved a 
commanding majority in the election and remained the dominant party 
until the 1830s. 

The election signalled the start of a new era in politics, allowing a cohort of young, talented politicians to come to the fore. Among them was the Whigs’ new leader, Earl Grey, who would play a pivotal role in the reform of Britain’s electoral system. 

 


A satirical cartoon from 1832 
on the problem of tackling 
corrupt ‘rotten’ boroughs. (Bridgman)

 

1831: The public demand 
electoral reform

Why was it called? Many politicians feared Britain was on the brink of revolution in 1831. Two substantial measures removing barriers for Catholics to participate in politics and public life had been passed in 1828 and 1829. Now there was considerable public pressure for the electoral system to be modernised. 

The Whigs were in favour of moderate reform; the Tories, led by the Duke of Wellington, were fervently opposed. Wellington had been elected with a slender majority in the summer of 
1830, but was forced to resign in 
November following a series of defeats 
in the Commons. 

In March 1831, Wellington’s replacement, Earl Grey, forced his Reform Act through the Commons. However, it passed by just one vote, and the Tories introduced wrecking amendments in the committee stage. William IV then reluctantly gave his consent for parliament to be dissolved. 



Did it work? Yes. The Tories were routed and had to rely on seats from (small, unrepresentative) rotten boroughs. The weight of public opinion was in favour of reform and delivered a stark message to those opposing it. As a result, a Reform Act passed through both Commons and Lords in June 1832, but not without serious levels of public violence. 

 


Gladstone (above) crushed his bitter rival Disraeli in the 1868 election. (Alamy)
 

1868: Gladstone and Disraeli tussle over reform

Why was it called? 
The spring of 1866 again saw electoral reform on the parliamentary agenda. 
Prime minister Earl Russell and chancellor William Gladstone put forward a moderate bill, only to be defeated by a coalition of backbench Liberals and Conservatives led by the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli. Russell resigned to be replaced by a minority Conservative government. 

In an opportunistic move, Disraeli pushed through a far more radical Reform Act in the summer of 1867. Based on the principle of household suffrage, it enfranchised a million new working-class voters. But the minority government was defeated on a series of resolutions on the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, forcing Disraeli to go to the polls.  



Did it work? Not initially. Gladstone was swept 
into office with a majority of 116 seats – though Disraeli was voted back into power in 1874.

The 1868 election is often seen as 
the beginning of a period of two-party politics, where the Liberals and 
Conservatives took it in turns to 
form governments. It was also the 
last general election where voting 
took place in public. The 1872 Ballot
Act introduced voting in secret, 
diminishing the influence of landlords over their tenants, and employers 
over employees.

 


The Labour party’s zeal for House of Lords reform helped bolster the Liberals following the two elections 
of 1910. (Alamy)
 

Jan and Dec 1910: Houses at war lead 
to two votes in a year

Why was it called? 
The two elections of 1910 were held in the midst of a constitutional crisis: a struggle between the Commons and Lords. Lloyd George, chancellor of the Exchequer in Herbert Asquith’s government, had introduced the ‘People’s Budget’ in April 1909, which aimed to increase taxes on the rich to pay for social welfare reforms. The House of Lords controversially used their power of veto to block the budget in November – the first time a budget had been rejected for more than two centuries. 

The Liberals thus went to the country to get a mandate and to threaten the Lords with reform. The outcome was inconclusive, the Liberals holding onto power by their fingertips, supported by Labour and Irish Home Rule MPs. Although the Lords  passed the budget in April 1910, contention between the two houses continued. Asquith decided to hold yet another snap election in December 1910, hoping to gain a working majority. 



Did it work? The result of the December election was inconclusive. The Conservatives and Unionists polled the greatest number of votes, but the Liberals won one more seat (272 to the Conservatives’ 271) and held onto power with the support of Labour and the Irish Nationalists. As a result, Asquith’s government was able to introduce the 1911 Parliament Act, which denied the Lords the right to reject budgets. Their ability to veto other measures was also reduced. 

 


Clement Attlee (second right) emerges from a polling station during the snap election of 1951. His party polled a record number of votes but would be out of power for 13 years (Getty Images) 
 

1951: Postwar victors forced to go to the country

Why was it called? 
Clement Attlee’s Labour party were the surprise winners of the election at the end of the Second World War. The new administration was both radical and active, with more than 200 pieces of legislation passed in its first three years, including the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. However, the election of 1950 left Labour with a hugely reduced majority of only five seats. And, by September 1951 – with his government relying on seriously ill MPs coming to the House from their sickbeds to keep it in power – Attlee had decided to call another general election. 




Did it work? No – it ended in a frustrating defeat for Attlee. His party polled nearly 14 million votes – 200,000 more than the Conservatives and the most in Labour’s electoral history. But it wasn’t enough. Labour won 26 fewer seats than the Conservatives, and would be out of power for the next 13 years.

 


Margaret Thatcher in 1975, when she succeeded Edward Heath as leader of the Conservatives. (Getty Images)
 

October  1974: Wilson’s short stint 
at the top

Why was it called? 
The Conservative government led by Edward Heath was expected to win the February 1974 election, but the outcome was the first postwar hung parliament. 

The Conservatives polled the most votes, but were marginally behind in the number of seats obtained (297 to Labour’s 301). 
The Ulster Unionists, who opposed Heath’s plan for a power-sharing assembly at Stormont, refused to back the Conservatives and so Harold Wilson formed a minority government. His position was, however, precarious, and so he called another election in October 1974, making his February administration the shortest term of government since 1681.




Did it work? No. The expected comfortable Labour party majority did not materialise. In the end their majority was only three seats. But Heath had lost three out of the four elections he had contested as leader and was replaced by Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. 

This election marked the resurgence 
of minority parties, with Labour forced to do deals with the Liberals, the Ulster Unionists, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru once they lost their slender majority in 1977.   

 

Sarah Richardson teaches on British electoral politics at the University of Warwick

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