An unpromising precedent

The unexpected announcement of an election, made by the Prime Minister on 18 April, led Alistair Lexden to look back at the last occasion on which Britain went to the polls in comparable circumstances. His reflections appeared in a letter published in The Times on April 19 (once widely observed by Tories as Primrose Day in honour of Disraeli who died on 19 April 1881).

A number of snap elections have been held over the years by governments seeking to strengthen their position, but this is the first in nearly a century at which the support of the people is being sought for a wholly new direction in national affairs. The Conservative Party’s commanding lead in the opinion polls suggests that the outcome of this contest will be very different to that in 1923, but in elections nothing is certain until the votes of the people are cast.

Sir, The last time a general election came out of the blue in an attempt to secure a firm parliamentary majority for a highly controversial policy was in November 1923. After a few months in power with a comfortable position in the Commons thanks to his predecessor’s victory a year earlier, Stanley Baldwin sought a personal mandate for economic protectionism. Unemployment “on a scale unparalleled in our history” and “the disorganisation and poverty of Europe” demanded the imposition of duties on imported manufactured goods, he told the country, adding that Britain must work for “real free trade” with the Commonwealth.

The gamble did not pay off. The Liberals, divided and demoralised at the 1922 election, staged a remarkable recovery. Holding the balance of power in the new parliament, they put Ramsay MacDonald with 191 Labour MPs into office. He had no clearer programme than the present Labour leader. Will history repeat itself?

Yours faithfully
Lord Lexden
House of Lords