Preface: On this site, the great writer Hakeem Fullerton has compiled pieces about various US general elections, and in his footsteps I will follow by documenting all general elections in the UK since 1900. As to why I am starting at this point, there are a few reasons including its positioning at the start of the 20th century, the final election of the Victorian era, and the ability to gain easier access to modern electoral data.
The so-called ‘Khaki Election’ of 1900 saw the Conservatives retain power, only losing grip of a few seats since the last election. Proving how a strong bellum reputation can aid an incumbent government, the 1900 election saw the presumed governmental success in the Boer War reflect on the results.
In the last general election in 1895, the Conservatives’s Marquess of Salisbury (also known as Lord Salisbury, with the birthname Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) consolidated support for his government, earning a 152-seat majority. The election had been called shortly after Rosebury’s government tendered their resignations after a government defeat, making way for the Conservatives.
Ironically, although the Conservatives had won the 1892 election, a Liberal minority government was formed with a supply and demand deal, in which the Liberals were propped up by the Irish National Federation.
The Boer War
Fought on largely a single issue, by the time of the 1900 general election, the war was obviously a huge factor in the election’s outcome.
By election time, the Conservatives – who instigated the Second Boer War – had seemingly proved themselves in winning a war that seemed to be drawing to a close. Although not ending until 1902 and sullying Britain’s wartime reputation, by 1900, Britain had “captured most major Boer cities and formally annexed their territories,” according to History.com. The crucial timing of the election effectively guaranteed a huge government win, which may have been less forthcoming had the Conservatives held off a year or contested the election a year earlier.
The Conservatives played off Liberal opposition in their campaign with ex-Liberal Joseph Chamberlain remarking “Every vote against the government is a vote given to the Boers.” A patriotic and more nationalistic party in regards to the war, the Conservatives had played the political game to frame themselves as true heroes of the war.
All they needed was a strong majority to show electorate backing for their mandate, writing in their manifesto: “unless the party is armed with a strong majority in the House of Commons, it will lack the authority at home and abroad which is essential to the performance of its task,” whilst stressing its military priority if elected. The manifesto cleverly made the onus on the people for military support, aiding voters in feeling they had done their national wartime duty.
At a time when the war seemed to be resolved with a British victory, the Liberals opposition seemed all the more out of touch and negative, perhaps even dangerous to some.
One of the most outspoken opponents of the Boer War was future prime minister David Lloyd George, a member of the Stop the War Committee, who remarked that Boer was a “war of extermination…that is unfortunately what it seems we are now committing ourselves to — burning homesteads and turning women and children out of their homes.”
The Liberals were also at a time of divide, with the 1900 Conservative manifesto noting that the Liberals were “nearly divided House of Commons” and, if getting into power, a “Ministry depending upon a broken party.” Since Gladstone’s last premiership, the party had become further divided (having already been so in 1886 after arguments over Irish Home Rule), with a split between the Liberal Imperialists led by Lord Rosebury and the Liberal Unionists led by the Duke of Devonshire, with Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman needing to hold together two divided sides.
A great article on the 1900 general election by the website Intriguing History states that the war accentuated the divisions: “The divisions in the Liberal Party were accentuated by the Boer War 1889 – 1902 and how the party should cope with the growing enthusiasm for Empire among the electorate during the last decades of Queen Victoria’s reign. The old Liberals opposed overseas expansion and entanglements with other foreign powers as wrong and a drains on the exchequer. They sought to pacify rather than confront issues of foreign policy with imperial might. Their sympathy with small nationalities led them to decry the action of Britain hurling resources of the Empire against ‘a handful of farmers’. They raised point after point against the war and objection after objection to the manner in which it was being fought. However Liberal Imperialists thought this was the wrong policy for the Liberals to follow and Lord Rosebery and others such as Sir Edward Grey and H. Asquith felt that the party was in danger of being portrayed as unpatriotic, that they wanted to dismantle the Empire and would thus decrease British power around the world.”
Chamberlain remarked of the Liberal divide: “Two wings? Why, there are a dozen! I should not describe them as the wings of a bird but as the legs of a caterpillar!”
Contested in September-October, the Conservatives continued their landside albeit losing nine seats whilst Opposition Liberals gained six in a 402-183 result. Meanwhile, the newly-formed Labour Representation Committee ran its first election, winning two seats.
Chamberlain’s biographer James Garvin notes how the Conservatives 134-seat majority was “larger than Peel, Palmerstone, Disraeli, or Gladstone had ever commanded.” The Opposition suffered losses in London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle to name but a few cities.
Although the Conservatives only earned 3.7% more of the vote, the Conservatives ended with over 200 more seats under the first-past-the-post system. Part of this was due to 163 uncontested seats won by the Tories, with The Age newspaper noting that, for example, Lord Stanley – future Financial Secretary to the War Office and Postmaster General, of whom the Stanley Cup bears his father’s name – sat unopposed in his Lancashire seat. The Liberals could not even find candidates in 139 English constituencies.
The Liberals may have performed better in terms of seats – actually making headway in Wales – but the Conservatives were the true victors of the 1900 general election.
Figures different on the amount of people who voted in the election, with F.W.S. Craig noting over 3.5 million although The Syndey Morning Herald places the figure lower, at 2.5 million.
The National Archive reports that at the time, 58% of men over 21 could vote, whilst women remained disenfranchised up until 1918.
The average cost per vote across the UK was 4s 4d (four shillings, four ducats), with fairly minor financial differences per country.
The biggest legacy of the 1900 ‘Khaki Election’ is that it was the first election contested by the Labour Representation Committee (LCR), soon to become the Labour Party.
Due to many factors, Labour only secured two seats; Keir Hardie in Merthyr Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby. Labour leader Keir Hardie was an outspoken critic of then Boer War, a fellow member of the Stop the War Committee alongside Lloyd George. They polled 62,698 votes, with expenses totaling a slim £33 (~£3,000 as of 2022).
Their manifesto was a brief 150 words, announcing the party’s dedicated to various policies, some of which would shortly after become reality including adult suffrage and payment for members – with Labour the main flag-waver of these areas for reform, building upon the socialist and radical zeitgeist of early 20th century Britain.
The group had a breakthrough in the subsequent election in 1906 whilst within a quarter of a century of their first electoral showing they had become one of the foremost political parties in Britain; a constant forerunner in general elections.
The 1900 general election would turn out to be the very last of the Victorian era due to Queen Victoria’s passing in 1901.
Moreover, it would be the last election to be won for a prime minister sitting in the House of Lords. Since Salisbury stepped down in 1902, the idea of a prime minister sitting in the unelected, unaccountable chamber has become unacceptable. This was illustrated by Alec Douglas-Home needing to revoke his peerage before sitting as prime minister in 1963.
Salisbury would also be the last Conservative PM to win consecutive terms for decades – with consecutive electoral victories not repeated for a Conservative PM until Margaret Thatcher in 1983.
The 1900 general election saw the intake of some very important members of Parliament.
As mentioned earlier, this election saw the intake of the first leader of the Labour Party Keir Hardie, establishing a Labour presence in the Commons. This was a return to Parliament for Hardie, now in Merthyr Tydfil, having lost a previous seat in 1895 in West Ham South.
Although Liberal prospects in 1900 looked dull, The Journal of Liberal History has noted that although the Libs “remained hopelessly outgunned in both Houses of Parliament…through the gloom shone one utterly unexpected shaft of Liberal sunlight: the capture of North Westmorland…which had known only Tory MPs since Napoleonic times.”
Appleby became a Liberal constituency, captured by Richard Rigg, with the seats Conservative MP Joseph Savory seeing a 17.4% majority dissolve into a losing margin of 11.4%. Rigg had only been chosen as a candidate a month before, with The Times ruling the win a “rather remarkable victory.” Rigg’s victory not only signalised that hope was not dead but also the forthcoming ‘New Liberalism’, with Rigg stepping down in process to the policy shift, showing the ideological attachment the Liberals would soon find. At just 23, Rigg was the Baby of the House.
Another significant MP elected in 1900 was Bonar Law. Subsequently displaying his oratory skills at the 1900 Club, the Canadian-born Law quickly rose through the ranks, finding himself as Conservative Party leader in just over a decade and prime minister within another. Law will go down as one of history’s shortest-lived prime ministers. Although winning a general election, he served for only 222 days before stepping down due to serious throat cancer, dying a few months later.
The most important new MP from the 1900 general election however was a certain 25-year-old named Winston Churchill, elected to Oldham as a Conservative, having failed previous attempts at getting a seat. After a few years, Churchill defected to join the Liberals and saw high profile jobs in the party including Home Secretary. By 1924, he had rejoined the Conservatives, fearing the rise in socialism (the Liberals had, by this point, become friendly with Labour) and became Chancellor of the Exchequer.
As we all know, Churchill eventually became PM in 1940 amidst the most important time in British history. Churchill became a hero, delivering passionate, charismatic speeches that fueled Britain in its war against Nazism in a time when the nation may have otherwise become toast in the hands of the national socialists. He again became PM in the 50s, a significant figure in the war against the Soviets whilst remaining an iconic figurehead of British patriotism until his death as a nonagenarian.
In the 1900 election, Britain first elected the man who would go on to be honoured as not only one of Britain’s best prime ministers, not only one of the all-time greatest Britons, but a quintessential pop culture figure around the world, as he remains to this day.
Although seemingly uneventful on paper, the 1900 general election was significant more so in what would come rather than what did come.
The Boer War, still unconcluded by the 1900 election, would have the opposite effect for the Tories in 1906 yet the biggest impacts of the election can be summed up in two words: Labour and Churchill.
The next half a century (and beyond) would be impossible to imagine without the emergence of Labour and the introduction of Winston Churchill to British politics. Although it may seem inevitable that if not 1900, then shortly after, the rise of two of the most important developments of the 20th century is unarguably a huge long-term result of the ‘Khaki Election’ of 1900.
To conclude, in our follow-up, we trace the 1906 election; if you thought that the 1900 election was a Conservative triumph then 1906 was truly a Conservative calamity, with the Conservatives soon to be standing in the shadow, looking up, at a Liberal landslide.