Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

The 1900 election, with polling spanning September and October, came 63 years and three months into Queen Victoria’s long reign; that of May 2015 was, by curious coincidence, 63 years and three months into the second Elizabethan age. Both of these elections produced strange but apparently decisive results, and a measure of triumphalism from some of the winners and existential despair from the losers. But the verdict of 1900 proved fleeting and temporary; this turn of the century election is now one of the most obscure and dust-shrouded polls in British history. We cannot know yet whether 2015 was the start of a new ascendancy or whether, like 1900, it is an anomaly that posterity hardly notices.

The 1900 election was the first to be dubbed a ‘khaki election’, since the campaign took place in the midst of the Boer War. The term has subsequently become freighted with connotations of unworthiness and opportunism, to describe both 1900 and 1918, while 1945, technically as khaki an election as any, is immune from the taint. In May 1900 the relief of Mafikeng (Mafeking) was greeted in the streets of Britain with unrestrained, exuberant joy: the dour Victorian twilight suddenly interrupted with wild festivities, possibly more extreme than those that greeted the armistice of 1918 or VE Day in 1945.

A new word entered the English language to describe it: ‘mafficking’.  Pretoria followed in June, and it seemed there was little left to do than mop up. The 1900 campaign was waged with ruthless jingoism: ‘every seat lost to the Government is a seat gained to the Boers’ claimed Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, and Liberal leaders were accused of weakness and treachery.

The Liberal opposition was in an enfeebled condition in 1900. The party was on its third leader since losing power, and was shambolic and divided. The war itself sharpened the divisions between Liberal Imperialists, who broadly supported the war and thought there was no point in getting on the wrong side of public opinion on the issue, and the ‘pro-Boers’ who opposed imperial adventurism and became increasingly critical of the ‘methods of barbarism’ – including concentration camps – used as the South African conflict wore on.

The anti-imperialists were dubbed ‘little Englanders’ – a term that has reversed its meaning over the decades since. Divisions extended across the range of policy, including on Irish Home Rule and social policy; while there was more unity in principle on temperance and opposing Anglo-Catholic ritual within the Church of England, these were not issues with much popular heft even in high-minded late Victorian times. Liberal Imperialists disliked the ‘faddist’ nature of much Liberal politics; their leading light was the enigmatic former Prime Minister, Lord Roseberry, who evidently disapproved of the way the party had changed since he lost power. But the leadership of the party was first in the hands of William Harcourt, a radical who had proclaimed in 1894 that ‘we are all socialists now’, and then Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who took an unpopular anti-war stance.

In 1900, most of the interesting ideas seemed to be on the Conservative side; the Liberals seemed to be wedded to old-fashioned social ideas and outdated international norms of unrestricted free trade and anti-imperialism. The Conservatives, and the ultra-imperialist outriders and plutocrats such as Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Milner, were combining vigorous imperialism – now extending to hacking more concessions off China – with social reform and national efficiency in the face of growing competition from the United States and Germany. Britain might still be ahead in the global race, but it was tougher and closer than it had been 20 years before.

Few were surprised when the Conservatives emerged as the largest party in the 1900 election – the election had been timed with successful, cynical opportunism. The real shock was that they actually made net gains compared to the position at the end of the 1895-1900 parliament. Like 2015, the 1900 election saw a number of seats traded between the main parties without much of an overall trend – in both elections the opposition gained, but the Conservatives could be heartened that the gains they made in the previous General Election remained more or less intact.

Most of the Liberal gains were in smaller towns and rural areas where the Nonconformist conscience was most troubled by the Government’s record and the war, plus a number of railway towns where organised labour was making its presence felt. The Conservatives did best in areas of growing industry, gaining Reading and Middlesbrough, for example; polling a majority in Bradford and recovering Walthamstow (which they had lost in a by-election in 1897) with a majority up on 1895.The Unionists also did notably well in Scotland, where they won a majority of seats for the first time since 1832.

At the time, the 1900 election looked not only like a vindication of the last five years but also a solid foundation for a long period of Conservative hegemony. The electoral system had translated a fairly slender lead in votes into a big majority of parliamentary seats, although on this occasion the total votes cast understated the extent to which the Unionists dominated the electoral scene. The Pall Mall Gazette’s guide to the 1900 election was an unashamed work of Tory triumphalism, greeting the results in urban England thus:

“The Conservative and Liberal Unionist alliance has secured a hold upon the boroughs which has all the appearance of finality. The majority was thumping in 1886, comfortable in 1892, thumping again in 1895 and thumpingest in 1900, especially if the weight of votes recorded is taken into consideration.”

A Liberal majority was virtually impossible in 1900. There were 163 unopposed Unionist returns, 58 Irish Nationalists, and only 22 Liberals. The Liberals would have had to win an extreme landslide of 313 out of the 382 contested seats with Liberal candidates to get a majority, and even to govern with the support of the Irish Nationalists would have been a stretch. There was hardly an alternative government to be seen in the chaotic miasma of different shades of Liberal and Irish Nationalist, and the growing disruption to the two party system – particularly to what remained of Liberal unity – arising from trade union and socialist politics.

It was the first time since 1865 that there had been two successive election victories for a party, something that seemed to defy the known rules of electoral behaviour. Andrew Roberts quotes Lord Salisbury’s perplexed thoughts following the election:

“The phenomenon is without example that a party should twice dissolve, at an interval of five years and in each case bring back a majority of more than one hundred and thirty. What does it mean? I hope the causes are accidental and temporary.

But it may mean that the Reform Bill, digging down deeper and deeper into the population, has come upon a layer of pure combativeness. If this is the case I am afraid the country has evil times before it. Of course I recognise the justice of the verdict the country has just given: but that the love of justice should have overborne the great law of the pendulum I confess puzzles and bewilders me.”

In 1900, Lord Salisbury seemed to regret his renewed victory, pondering in private that being out of office would have been good for the soul of the party. He may have had a point. Another term in government revealed that the coalition of forces under the Unionist banner was perhaps even less coherent than the Liberal alternative, that the Tory policy agenda was exhausted and that the Liberals were able to renew their organisation – despite having very little money – and intellectual cutting edge in the years leading up to their great victory of 1906.

The issues – poverty, inequality, the power of the wealthy and the landowners, Ireland, the rights of people at work – continued to evolve in a Liberal direction while the Unionists tore themselves apart over an emotive international-economic issue (Tariff Reform, on that occasion) and governed in too blatantly self-interested a fashion.

Even in triumph back in 1895, Lord Salisbury – a sceptical, deceptively intelligent old Tory – was not tempted by triumphalism and was unwilling to read too much into his win:

“When the great oracle speaks, we are never quite certain what the great oracle said.”

Amen to that.

Further reading:

Andrew Roberts – Salisbury: Victorian Titan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999).

Pall Mall Gazette, The New House of Commons 1900.