Many elections, usually in their immediate aftermath, are described as historic or epoch-making – terms applied widely to Boris Johnson’s victory of last week.
But election results which are truly historic, in the sense of setting the country on a wholly new path, are actually rare. Since the start of the twentieth century there have arguably been only three – those of 1906, 1945 and 1979.
The first of these produced a Liberal landslide which, in a House of Commons containing 670 MPs, saw the Conservative Party emerge from its worst ever electoral performance with just 156 seats – far fewer than Jeremy Corbyn’s much-diminished Labour Party holds today.
But what really gives the 1906 election an enduring importance was the reform programme embarked on by the succession of Liberal administrations that were to hold office for the next ten years. At the heart of this programme were measures resulting in the beginnings of unemployment benefit and, most crucially, the introduction of old age pensions.
But if the origins of what came to be called the welfare state can be traced to the Liberal Party’s 1906 triumph, it was the equivalent Labour landslide of 1945 (again shrinking the tally of Tory MPs to under 200) which brought about the creation of the welfare state’s most enduring and most valued institution – the National Health Service.
Nor was the NHS by any means the sole achievement of what was the most innovative administration of modern times. Despite their being in charge of a country left virtually bankrupt by the Second World War, Labour’s 1945 ministerial team managed to nationalise huge swathes of British industry, equip the country with its own nuclear deterrent and, by granting independence to India, start dismantling Britain’s overseas empire.
It’s a measure of the 1945 Labour government’s success that much of what was then put in place was unaltered by that administration’s Conservative successors. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Tory prime ministers like Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan and Edward Heath were content to leave much of the British economy – railways, telecommunications, electricity generation, coal mining – in public ownership.
In some respects, in fact, Conservatives of that era were every bit as committed as their Labour predecessors to sustaining an actively interventionist state – building council houses, for example, at a faster rate than Labour managed. But then, in 1979, came an election that turned out to be as far-reaching in its consequences as any that had gone before.
This election brought Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party to power. Unlike the pivotal polls of 1945 and 1906, the 1979 election was no landslide – that would have to wait until 1983 when Mrs Thatcher’s majority increased from just over 40 to 144. But the 1979 result, for all that, ushered in a period of radical change in how Britain was organised. State-owned enterprises – in the energy sector, telecommunications and transport – were privatised. Council house tenants were given the right to buy their homes at knock-down prices. Government gave up on longstanding attempts to manage the economy – preferring instead to give free rein to market forces of the sort that, since 1945, politicians of all persuasions had tried to control and influence in all sorts of ways.
Nor was the Thatcher settlement put seriously at risk by Labour’s return to office by way of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. Just as Conservative prime ministers in the 1950s and 1960s made no attempt to unpick what had been accomplished by Labour in the years following 1945, the Blair and Brown governments of the 1997-2010 period never tried seriously to undo the bulk of what had been done by 1980s and 1990s Tories.
It’s for that reason that Blair’s electoral victories, however impressive, don’t bear comparison with those of 1979 or 1945.
What then of last week’s election? Might this December’s poll be seen in retrospect to be as truly transformative as some have been quick to claim?
Well, as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is supposed to have replied when asked about the long-run impact of the French Revolution of 1789, it’s probably too early to say.
With one proviso: for better or worse, Britain’s exit from the EU next month is now – thanks to Mr Johnson’s new-won parliamentary majority – guaranteed. That unravelling of this country’s longstanding connections with our continental neighbours is itself sufficient to underline the historic nature of what’s just taken place politically.
And there could be more of consequence to come – some of it in the prime minister’s control and some not. In the latter category, and inextricably mixed up with Brexit and its outcomes, will be the working out of future relationships between England on one side, Northern Ireland and Scotland on the other. Despite the fact that Irish and Scottish nationalists secured majorities in their parts of these islands last week, it is by no means inevitable that Irish unification or Scottish independence will come about any time soon. But neither is impossible. And if, in the event, the 2019 election proves a prelude to the break-up of the UK, then it truly will have turned out to be momentous.
Jim Hunter is a historian, award-winning author and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands