Century-old British election echoes debate today as European vote approaches


Nigel Farage poses for a photograph as he unveils a new UKIP campaign poster in London. (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

The vote was a landslide, a stirring victory for a party promising radical change and a thorough repudiation of the established order.

The victor was the Liberal Party. The year was 1906. And it was the last time a party other than Labor or the Conservatives won the popular vote in a nationwide ballot in Britain.

But now, more than a century later, that streak appears near its end.

If polls are to be believed, the U.K. Independence Party will come out on top in next week’s European parliamentary elections.

The vote is far less important than British general elections, with a majority of Britons typically not even bothering to turn out to cast a ballot for their representatives in the Strasbourg-based European parliament.

But UKIP’s rise does reflect the angry, antiestablishment mood among the public — one that in some ways mirrors the mood in 1906.

The 1906 election was, of course, held under very different circumstances than the one coming up next Thursday. At the time, Ireland was a part of the U.K., women couldn’t vote and the first European airplane flight was still months in the future.

But there were similarities: Just as today, voters were upset by evidence of national extravagance, and sick of higher taxes being used to pay off the tab for a distant war (in this case, the Boer War in South Africa).

Britain’s economic engagement with the world also was at stake. The ruling Conservatives tried to play on voter fears that the country would be flooded with cheap foreign imports that would put Britons out of work. A pro-tariff organization even set up an exhibit of low-cost German pottery to dramatize the threat.

Yet it’s here where the similarities end. UKIP has gone big with a billboard campaign warning of the hit that British workers take from mass immigration, and the message appears to be resonating.

In 1906, voters weren’t buying the need to erect walls between Britain and the world. When the pro-tariff group showed off the cheap German pottery at a public meeting, British potters drowned out the presenter with emphatic assurances that they could produce work of the same quality for the same price, according to a report in the Manchester Guardian.

The Liberals’ free-trade argument won the day, and the election. Waves of social and economic reform followed.

The 1906 Liberal landslide ended up being the party’s political high-water mark . That same year, Labor won its first seats in Parliament and ultimately would replace the Liberals as the main Conservative alternative. The Liberals, riven by division by the end of World War I, would fade into marginality.

It remains to be seen whether UKIP’s expected victory next week will mark its own short-lived peak, or another step in the party’s quest to disturb what has long been a political duopoly.

The last party to shake up the system — the Liberal Democrats, heirs to the Liberals — ran a strong third in the 2010 general election but have seen their popularity fade since they joined a Conservative-led coalition government.

UKIP’s challenge will be to translate its success in European elections — when die-hard voters turn out, but many others stay home — into wins in next year’s British parliamentary election. The first-past-the-post voting system, which gives no points for coming in second, won’t help.

But Nigel Farage, UKIP’s outspoken leader, is already thinking ahead to that vote. Asked on Wednesday whether he’d join a coalition to keep Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s government alive if no party gets a majority in next year’s election, Farage said he would consider it.

But it will take two to tango.

“I'd have thought David Cameron would rather go to his political grave rather than ever contemplate doing a deal with the ghastly UKIP,” said the ever-colorful Farage. “That's my judgment, I could be wrong.”

Griff Witte is The Post’s London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper’s deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.

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