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By-elections in British Politics, 1832-1914

By-elections in British Politics, 1832-1914

T. G. Otte
Paul Readman
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    By-elections in British Politics, 1832-1914
    Book Description:

    Between the 1832 Great Reform Act and the outbreak of World War One in 1914, over 2,600 by-elections took place in Britain. They were triggered by the death, retirement or resignation of sitting MPs or by the appointment of cabinet ministers and were a regular feature of Victorian and Edwardian politics. They furnished political parties and their leaders with a crucial tool for gauging and mobilising public opinion. Yet despite the prominence of by-election contests in the historical records of this period, scholars have paid relatively little attention to them. As this book shows, these elections deserve to be taken as seriously today as people took them at the time. They provided important linkages between local and national politics, between the four parts of the United Kingdom and Westminster, and between foreign and domestic affairs. They are vital to understanding the evolving electioneering machineries, the varying language of electoral contests, the traction that particular issues had with a growing and frequently volatile electorate, and the fluctuating fortunes of the political parties. This book, consisting of original work by leading political historians, provides the first synoptic study of this important subject. It will be required reading for historians and students of modern British political history, as well as specialists in electoral history and politics. T. G. Otte is Senior Lecturer in Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia. He is the author and/or editor of some thirteen books. Among the most recent is "The Foreign Office Mind: The Making of British Foreign Policy, 1865-1914". Paul Readman is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at King's College London. He is the author of "Land and Nation in England: Patriotism, National Identity and the Politics of Land 1880-1914".

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-121-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
    TGO and PR
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)
    T.G. Otte and Paul Readman

    Students of Victorian and Edwardian electoral politics are confronted with a paradox. For all the energetic exertions of the parties and their agents at parliamentary by-elections, and for all the importance contemporaries attached to such contests, they have rarely left their mark on the scholarly literature. On the contrary, the historical study of British electoral politics is concentrated on general elections. There are obvious reasons for this. General elections decide the fate of governments and determine the overall balance of parties in parliament. They are national events; and they are treated as milestones in the narratives of political history, as...

  8. Chapter 1 ‘Plumping Contests’: The Impact of By-elections on English Voting Behaviour, 1790–1868
    (pp. 23-50)
    Philip Salmon

    Although the word by-election or ‘bye-election’ has been around since at least the early 1830s, it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that its use became increasingly widespread.¹ Prior to this, the terms most commonly used were ‘single election’, ‘single-handed election’, ‘plumping election’ and, on occasion, even ‘thumb-screw’ or ‘screw election’.² This difference of language represents an important point that has been curiously neglected by historians of English electoral politics. The earlier terminology, with its emphasis on a solitary option and references to special electoral pressures, reflects the fact that most English constituencies throughout this period...

  9. Chapter 2 Government Appointment By-elections: 1832–86
    (pp. 51-76)
    Angus Hawkins

    Under the provisions of the 1707 Succession to the Crown Act and subsequent legislation MPs appointed to certain ministerial and legal offices were required to seek re-election on taking up office. Despite Lord John Russell’s attempt to remove this necessity in his unsuccessful 1852 Reform Bill, it was not until 1919, with the passage of the Re-Election of Ministers Act, that this requirement was removed. The 504 government appointment re-elections which occurred between 1832 and 1886 made up the single largest category (27%) of all by-elections, or ‘single elections’ as they were frequently called, during this period. A slightly lower...

  10. Chapter 3 ‘We should have had 1,000’: The By-elections of the 1874 Parliament
    (pp. 77-98)
    Geoffrey Hicks

    The by-elections of the 1874–80 parliament, that of the Conservative administration led by Benjamin Disraeli, have usually attracted attention for only one reason: their part in its dissolution. As David Butler has noted: ‘It was thought, probably incorrectly, that the deceptively favourable outcome of contests at Southwark and Sheffield in February 1880 lured Disraeli into announcing the general election which ended his rule.’¹ So far into obscurity have the by-elections of that period disappeared that even the contests in question seem to have been forgotten: it was a Conservative ‘hold’ in Liverpool and a Conservative gain in Southwark in...

  11. Chapter 4 ‘The Glamour of Independence’: By-elections and Radicalism during the Liberal Meridian, 1869–83
    (pp. 99-120)
    Antony Taylor

    British parliamentary by-elections have received relatively little consideration for the years before 1919. David Butler sees the preoccupation with high-profile by-elections as a product of universal enfranchisement, and the emergence of the modern two-party system.¹ One might add that a confident, confrontational and increasingly modern media in the post-1919 years stoked the image of by-elections as a form of ‘circus’ that cast doubt on the performance of governments, dented the morale of ministries, or provided a predictor for general election results. For Butler the first recognisably modern by-elections were fought in the period 1904–5.² This statement has become the...

  12. Chapter 5 ‘The Swing of the Pendulum at Home’: By-elections and Foreign Policy, 1865–1914
    (pp. 121-150)
    T.G. Otte

    To group electoral politics and foreign policy together must, at first glance, appear quixotic. It certainly runs against established historiographical verities. Diplomatic historians are wont to assert the separation of the British state’s external activities from the domestic preoccupations of its political élite. Thus, James Joll, in his magisterial survey of the origins of the First World War, concluded that, in sharp contrast to the continental Powers, any link between domestic affairs and foreign policy decision-making is well-nigh impossible to establish.¹ At the same time, all too often, in all too many accounts of British history in the long nineteenth...

  13. Chapter 6 By-elections and the Modernisation of Party Organisation, 1867–1914
    (pp. 151-176)
    Kathryn Rix

    Between the 1868 general election and the end of 1914, a total of 1,357 by-elections took place in Britain, of which 814 (60%) were contested.¹ These contests were the focus of considerable attention from party activists, not only in their organisational efforts to retain or gain the seat, thereby conserving or augmenting their party’s strength in the Commons, but also in assessing the implications of by-election results for the likely outcome of the succeeding general election. Gladstone’s articles on ‘Electoral Facts’ in the Nineteenth Century were among the most notable examples of such ‘political meteorology’.² However, many contemporaries did not...

  14. Chapter 7 ‘A Terrific Outburst of Political Meteorology’: By-elections and the Unionist Electoral Ascendancy in Late-Victorian England
    (pp. 177-200)
    Matthew Roberts

    From the 1880s by-elections began to attract a level of attention that was unprecedented, from politicians and public alike. Reflecting on the by-elections which had taken place during the earlier part of the 1886–92 Salisbury government, Gladstone observed how ‘they have kept the nation in an almost perpetual fever: the figures of the polls have flown on the wings of the telegraph into every quarter, and have been minutely discussed by the metropolitan and provincial press’.¹ By-elections even began to attract regular notice and comment in the satirical press from the 1880s with candidates-aspirant succumbing to the wit and...

  15. Chapter 8 Land Reform and By-elections, 1885–1914: Do By-elections Matter?
    (pp. 201-226)
    Ian Packer

    By-elections were crucial to nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century politics because they offered the most reliable evidence of movements of public opinion between general elections. This meant they received a great deal of attention from politicians seeking to interpret trends in the popularity of political parties and predict the outcome of general elections. Even lofty political figures like Gladstone were not immune from these attempts to unravel the meanings of by-elections.¹ Twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians have replicated this interest and there have been some important debates about how trends in by-election voting should be interpreted, especially whether the period 1911–14...

  16. Chapter 9 Edwardian By-elections
    (pp. 227-250)
    Paul Readman and Luke Blaxill

    Historians have long evinced considerable interest in the Edwardian period, political historians perhaps more than most. Early work by Élie Halévy and George Dangerfield established the fifteen or so years before the First World War as crucially transformative of British politics, featuring – inter alia – the efflorescence of pressure group agitation, the rise of the modern-day Labour movement, and deep political crisis for Liberalism.¹ More recent research has offered illuminating interpretations of the politics of these tumultuous years, and stimulated intense scholarly debate on many issues, from the effectiveness of the suffragette campaign to the political significance of New...

  17. Chapter 10 Lloyd George, Limehouse and the Realignment of British Politics: The Bermondsey By-election of 1909
    (pp. 251-272)
    Phillips Payson O’Brien

    On 18 October 1909 The Scotsman published a story on the upcoming Bermondsey by-election which began:

    The slang of politicians describes each by election with monotonous regularity as an event of peculiar importance in the history of the country, or as marking an epoch in the fortunes of the party. The language which is used by way of commonplace on such occasions may be accepted with all seriousness in application to the pending contest in Bermondsey. Seldom indeed have the electors of any constituency held so obviously the fate of a party and a policy in their hands.¹

    On the...

  18. Chapter 11 By-elections and the Peculiarities of Scottish Politics, 1832–1900
    (pp. 273-292)
    Gordon Pentland

    This article was penned in 1888 in the midst of a series of fiercely contested by-elections in Scotland, largely centred on the conflict of Liberals and Liberal Unionists, but including Keir Hardie’s celebrated yet electorally insignificant challenge for Mid-Lanark.² Such commentary was fairly typical of a frequently-stated encapsulation of Scottish political difference across the nineteenth century. By the 1880s the question of why Scotland was so consistently Liberal in electoral terms was almost as hackneyed as the jibe that all Conservative MPs could fit in a single firstclass train compartment.³ The period of Liberal electoral dominance in Scotland stretched unbroken...

  19. Index of By-election Contests
    (pp. 293-296)
  20. General Index
    (pp. 297-306)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-307)