Will Ukraine Wind Up Making Territorial Concessions to Russia?
Foreign Affairs Asks the Experts
ON November 14, 1935, the British people went to the polls. When the results were known, it was found that the same National Government had been returned to power which had emerged victorious in the general election of October 1931. The margin of victory was not so great as before. But the Government still had a majority of 247 seats.
|ELECTION OF OCTOBER 1931|
|National Liberals (Simon)||35|
|National Labor (MacDonald)||13|
|Independent Liberals (Lloyd George)||4|
|ELECTION OF NOVEMBER 1935|
|National Liberals (Simon)||33|
|National Labor (MacDonald)||8|
|Independent Liberals (Lloyd George)||4|
For the first time since 1918 the same party has been returned to power at two successive elections. The National (Conservative) Government first assumed office in October 1931. From its predecessor, the Labor Party, it inherited a hardly enviable situation. Yet in four years the Conservatives not only balanced the budget but produced a surplus; and while not eliminating unemployment they did at least decrease it. In the autumn of 1935 they played a preëminent rôle in the dispute between the League of Nations and Italy. They presented an able record; and the electorate endorsed it.
If the Conservatives possessed statesmen, the timing of the election showed that they also possessed politicians. Riding the full tide of their success at Geneva, the Conservatives dissolved parliament on October 25 and called for new elections. The Labor Party, the most important element in the Opposition, was caught unawares. Its leaders had assumed that there would probably be no general election until 1936. They not only lacked an effective panoply of war, but their opponents stole most of their thunder. The domestic policies of the two parties differed in degree but not in kind. In matters of foreign policy, Labor advocated a strong League. The Conservatives not only stood for a strong League: they could claim to have made the League strong. What is more important, Labor seemed to lack a vigorous desire to win. It merely hoped to increase its parliamentary representation by 200 seats. Even here it was disappointed: it gained half this number. Excluding the elections of 1906, 1918, and 1931, no election since 1832 has returned a party by such a tremendous majority as the National Government has just won. An unusual feature was that former Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald failed of reëlection. Ex-prime ministers generally are not defeated. To find a comparable situation one has to go back to the defeat of Asquith in 1918. Another party leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, also met with disaster.
The British system of politics is traditionally known as a two-party system. The list of parties in 1931 and 1935 shows that this is true only in a modified sense. The last election which returned two parties, and only two, was that of 1868. With the election of 1874, the Irish Nationalists entered the House of Commons and were consistently returned until the Home Rule settlement of 1922. For half a century they constituted a strong parliamentary bloc occupying some 80 seats. Meanwhile an earlier Home Rule bill had divided the Liberal Party into the Gladstone Liberals and the Liberal Unionists. For a generation, from 1886 until the post-war period, there were at least four parties: Conservatives, Liberal Unionists, Gladstone Liberals, and Irish Nationalists. In 1906 Labor entered the parliamentary ranks to make a fifth. The granting of Home Rule in 1922 reduced the five parties to three: the Irish Nationalists left Westminster in triumph and the Liberals became a unified party.
Thus in 1922 British politics entered a new phase. But the tendency towards greater simplicity was circumvented by the appearance of Labor as a powerful party. During the decade of the twenties British politics suffered the inconveniences engendered by a three-party system. The election of 1931, however, initiated a return to two-party government. For the first time since the war, 85 percent of the Government's forces consisted of one party and 85 percent of the Opposition consisted of one party. The tendency begun in 1931 was confirmed by the election of November 1935. In the new House of Commons, 90 percent of the Government seats are held by Conservatives and 84 percent of the Opposition seats by Labor.
With each election it becomes more obvious that the two great political parties are the Conservatives and Labor. The old Liberal Party is gradually disappearing. The reasons are several: there seems no place in the British system for two liberal parties; and a large part of the female electorate, added since 1918, is of a generation accustomed to think of Labor as the anti-Conservative party. A study of the success of the Liberals at the various elections from 1918 to 1935 shows that in respect to both the proportion of seats held in parliament and the proportion of the popular vote obtained, the Liberal Party is declining in strength.
|Percentage of seats held by Liberals||23||19||26||7||10||12||9|
|Percentage of popular vote won by Liberals||31||27||29||18||23||12||10|
As a result of three-cornered and sometimes four-cornered elections, a party's strength in Commons may be greater than the popular vote it receives. Conversely it may receive a high popular vote and hold relatively few seats. To take only the last four elections:
|Percentage of seats held by Government parties||68||47||90||70|
|Percentage of seats held by Opposition parties||32||53||10||30|
|Percentage of popular vote won by Government parties||48||37||69||55|
|Percentage of popular vote won by Opposition parties||52||63||31||45|
It is obvious that a party's fundamental strength should not be judged by the number of seats it holds in Commons. A much better indication is the proportion of the popular vote it receives. In this latter respect, the decline of the Liberal Party is indeed significant.
Although for half a century Britain has not had a two-party system, there has been no urgent demand for proportional representation. The British have been wiser than their neighbors across the Channel. The French have always been preoccupied in devising a system of proportional representation to meet the demands of abstract justice. Whatever the merits of the plan in theory, it has produced unmanageable parliaments in practice. The British system, despite its imperfections, has the substantial merit of functioning smoothly. If at times it functions adversely for a party, at other times it works in its favor. From 1924 to 1935, Labor's popular strength was often greater than its parliamentary strength. On the other hand, from 1900 to 1922 Labor had a parliamentary representation far greater than its popular strength.
The British system has functioned smoothly because, although there were many parties, there has almost always been one unified Government party and one unified Opposition party. In this modified sense, Britain has always had a two-party system. The trend begun in 1931, and confirmed in the recent election, suggests that in a very real way Britain is returning to a two-party system of government.
But the real importance of the election is not its effect on the development of parties. Its greatest significance lies in the realm of international affairs. The National (Conservative) Government seems to have been returned to power not because of its able domestic record but because of its decisive rôle in the dispute between the League of Nations and Italy. A year ago the Conservatives had the domestic recovery of Britain to their credit. Nevertheless, there was a general feeling that if the Conservatives immediately dissolved Parliament and called for new elections they would be defeated. Meanwhile a year elapsed and a major European crisis developed. The Conservatives firmly supported the League in its attempt to solve the crisis by collective action. Their firmness was doubtless inspired by the recent Peace Ballot. In this Ballot more than eleven million votes were cast; over ten million favored the League's imposing sanctions on an aggressor.
The strong League policy of the Conservatives appealed to many groups: to the imperialists who feared that Italy was threatening the life-line of the British Empire; to the big-navy men who saw in the enforcement of League sanctions an excuse for greater armaments; and to those millions of British citizens who see the security of Britain, of the Empire, and of Europe as indissolubly linked with collective action. The many-sided appeal was overwhelmingly successful.