14 DECEMBER, 1918: Politics, Populism… Don’t Panic!

I’ve already mentioned that a general election took place in the UK and Ireland a century ago today.   I’ve outlined the basic political landscape during the brief campaign that preceded the election, which had been called straight after the Armistice, and I’ve touched upon the many factors that made this one special (30 November, 1918: Wh’appen?).  Because what was known as the Khaki or Coupon Election owed much about its shape and outcome to the First World War, and because it offers some (vaguely reassuring) parallels with the political weirdness currently afflicting the British parliament, I think it merits a little more song and dance.

The expansion of the franchise in 1918 was big enough to render electoral precedent redundant.  About 7.7 million citizens had been eligible to vote in the previous British election, in 1910, but the electorate now included most women over thirty, virtually all men over twenty-one and men over nineteen who had served in the War, so that almost 21.4 million voters had the right to their say.  Nobody could be sure how the nation’s new constituents would line up in party terms, with the millions on active service viewed by the political elite as even less predictable than women (seen by many male observers as likely to follow the advice of husbands or other male figures) or workers tempted to the left by the revolutionary flavour of the times.  All informed observers were sure the election would redefine Britain’s political landscape for the post-War era, and the prospect worried a lot of them.

Quite a few of the same informed observers, particularly those with a solid stake in the status quo, spent the campaign complaining that the election had been called too quickly.  The logistic challenge of collecting and counting millions of votes from overseas was cited as one good reason for delay, and another was the ongoing flu epidemic, which was just passing its autumn peak and expected to hobble the hustings.  Influenza did cause the cancellation of many election meetings – which were still an important form of political communication in 1918 – and forced some candidates to stand down, but for many social conservatives the real reason for demanding delay was the hope that more time and a proper dose of conventional campaigning might clarify the state of the parties and dissuade the new electorate from anything too radical.

The two-party system that had dominated mainland British politics for decades needed clarifying.  The biggest party in the House of Commons, the Liberal Party, was split between 145 ‘Coupon’ candidates for the governing coalition led by Lloyd George – known as such because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s sole candidate in a constituency – and 276 representing party leader Asquith’s anti-coalition bloc.  Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party, which had last formed a government in 1905 but had won only one seat less than the Liberals in 1910, stood solidly behind the ideological shelter of the coalition, fielding 362 of the coalition’s candidates against only 83 non-coalition Tories, but the real fly in the ointment was the relatively new Labour Party.

A surprise choice as Conservative Party leader in 1911, Andrew Bonar Law would survive to serve as prime minister in the early 1920s – but is possibly the least remembered major political figure of the age.

The socialist Second International’s bid for peace in the years before 1914, doomed at the time but looking smart with hindsight; the apparent disillusion with conventional nationalism that accompanied war weariness; the hope for a new world order, nurtured by propaganda promises and by the practical reforms introduced to make total war possible; the belief fostered by revolutions elsewhere, especially in Russia and now in Germany, that no regime was immune to the sudden expression of popular anger… all these factors would, it seemed, conspire to launch the British Labour Party into the forefront of parliamentary politics in 1918.  Only 5 Labour candidates took the Coupon – along with 18 (of a total of 23) candidates from the National Democratic and Labour Party (NDLP), an anti-pacifist, nationalist centre-left splinter group fighting its only election – but nobody had any real idea how far (predominantly urban and military) voters would support the other 361 Labour candidates.

The days before the election passed in a Brexit-like frenzy of anticipation, laden with dramatic predictions of national transformation but, partly because press and politicians regarded much of the new electorate as incapable of sophisticated political thinking, hooked on populism.  The issue  of reparations dominated debate and, broadly speaking, the coalition campaigned on its war-winning record, presenting itself as the ideal group to prosecute the peace and punish Germany for its crimes.  Trade was another axis of dispute, with Lloyd George and the Conservatives promoting the policy of ‘colonial preference’ agreed with the Empire’s ‘white’ dominions, while non-coalition Liberals argued for free trade –but Asquith’s lethargic, underfunded campaign failed to make trade a major popular issue.  Unable to summon a clear programme to compete with the Labour manifesto, which promised radical reform to match the ambitions kindled by wartime social measures, Asquith’s party paid for what historians regard as either weariness or complacency.

Only 36 Asquith Liberals were elected, and he lost his own seat, while 127 coalition Liberals were returned along with 332 coalition and 50 non-coupon Conservatives.  The big story was the Labour Party, which had won 42 seats in the 1910 election and now mustered 57 non-coupon MPs, alongside four Labour and nine NDLP coalition members.  This wasn’t revolution, despite a surge in the Labour vote that saw the party come second on lots of places, but it was steady growth and it did mark a shift in Britain’s basic political dividing line.

Fought to a chorus of ‘Hang the Kaiser!’, the election had produced a victory for the nationalist, patriotic sentiment associated with conservatism, but the immediate triumph of right-wing values masked an underlying shift to the left that has yet to be reversed.  It would force Conservatives to focus on social welfare as never before, see the Liberal Party permanently relegated to the margins of British political life, and establish the Labour Party’s various shades of reformist (rather than revolutionary) socialism as one of the twin pillars of a new two-party system that is only now falling apart.

A simple, populist message for a naive electorate… and it was enough to win the 1918 election.

Given that women and troops did not vote en masse for immediate reform of the political system, or even come out in strong support of one particular party (or gender), it could be argued that the 1918 election, while an important watershed moment, didn’t quite live up to the hype – but only if you ignore Ireland, where the it brought the expedient politics of wartime British rule home to roost.

Ireland accounted for 105 seats in the UK parliament (though the vagaries of double constituencies meant this only produced 101 MPs), but the issues upon which the election was fought had little to do with the preoccupations of mainland voters.  The War had brought to the boil the long, often violent, three-way argument about independence that had dominated Irish politics since the late 19th century.  Supporters of full Irish independence were principally represented by Sinn Fein, while supporters of Home Rule (autonomy within Great Britain, as proposed by the coalition government) were represented by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and its offshoots.  The IPP and Home Rule had been fatally compromised by British government’s wartime behaviour (25 July, 1917: Green Shoots), and Sinn Fein reaped the benefits of popular disillusion with compromise.

This worked pretty well too…

Fighting its first general election, having taken six seats in wartime by-elections, Sinn Fein took 73 seats in 1918, while the IPP suffered a spectacular collapse, leaving it with only six of the 73 seats it had held in 1910.  The third corner of Ireland’s political triangle, those wishing to remain as a fully integrated part of Great Britain, almost all of them Protestants from Ulster, didn’t budge from its usual position, voting in 22 Ulster Unionist and three Labour Unionist MPs.  Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the south owed a lot to the first-past-the-post system that stills skews British politics but was still a clear statement of popular opinion, as was Ulster’s rock solid support for the Union.  Irish politics had clearly polarised.  Home Rule was dead, and the status quo was doomed.

Proof of the sea change came almost at once.  Sinn Fein, which refused to take up its seats in Westminster, called Ireland’s 101 elected MPs to an Irish assembly, the Dáil, which met for the first time on 21 January 1919.  Only 27 deputies attended the meeting – most other Sinn Fein MPs were in prison and other parties joined the British government in refusing to recognise the assembly – but they immediately declared an independent Irish Republic with the Dáil as its parliament.  This date, which coincided with the death of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers during an ambush by members of the Irish Volunteers (a militant organisation soon to change its name to the Irish Republican Army under the aegis of Sinn Fein), is usually taken as the beginning of an Irish war against Great Britain that brought independence in 1921, followed by almost two years of civil war between republicans and unionists.

So the 1918 general election brought a permanent shift in the balance of political power in mainland Britain, and finally released the dancing genie of Irish independence from the imperial bottle.  It marked the true birth of British mass politics as we understand them today, both as the first occasion on which voting wasn’t restricted to male property holders and as the first confrontation between voters and a sophisticated government propaganda machine, bolstered by mass communication and aimed at the emotions of the poorly informed.  As such, the vote was preceded by far and away the noisiest election campaign in British history to that point, brief but awash with hyperbole, and was anticipated with the kind of apocalyptic fervour we’re learning to expect around Brexit electioneering.

For all that, life in mainland Britain was not fundamentally changed by the outcome in December 1918, and the election attracted a very low turnout, at 57.2 percent the lowest of any British general election before or since.  Big storm, big teacup, a little erosion of some longstanding pedestals, and life goes on… something to remember that the next time Britain’s current political crisis freaks you out.

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