The Khaki Election

The Khaki Election of 1900

In Britain any election called as a result of war either pre , during or post, is called a Khaki Election and there have been a number of these in the C20th. The Khaki election of 1900 was really a turning point in Britain for many reasons. Within the year the country would face the death of its long reigning much loved monarch, Queen Victoria. Its Empire building days had stalled and the Boer War was proving a contentious issue not just at home but also abroad.

Politics in Britain in 1900

What did the political face of Britain in 1900 look like? The House of Lords was the dominant force in Parliament in 1900. It produced many of the country’s Prime Ministers with the notable exception of William Gladstone, the ‘Grand Old Man’ of the Liberal party whose impact on British politics over the previous fifty years was immense. He served for twelve years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, spread over four terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894. When he died in 1898, not just the Liberal Party but the whole House missed his oratory and influence, although the shadow of both moved over Parliament for years to come.

Khaki Election
Marquis of Salisbury, leader of the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Party and the Boer War.

The death of Gladstone changed the Liberal Party, within a few years the the Party he had led, were split into several sections. There were Liberal Imperialists led by Lord Roseberry and there were Liberal Unionists led by the Duke of Devonshire and finally there were the old guard of Liberals who still drew closely on the political theory of Gladstone and who were horrified by Imperialistic doctrines. The divisions in the Liberal Party were accentuated by the Boer War 1889 – 1902 and how the party should cope with the growing enthusiasm for Empire among the electorate during the last decades of Queen Victoria’s reign. The old Liberals opposed overseas expansion and entanglements with other foreign powers as wrong and a drains on the exchequer. They sought to pacify rather than confront issues of foreign policy with imperial might. Their sympathy with small nationalities led them to decry the action of Britain hurling resources of the Empire against ‘a handful of farmers’. They raised point after point against the war and objection after objection to the manner in which it was being fought. However Liberal Imperialists thought this was the wrong policy for the Liberals to follow and Lord Rosebery and others such as Sir Edward Grey and H. Asquith felt that the party was in danger of being portrayed as unpatriotic, that they wanted to dismantle the Empire and would thus decrease British power around the world. However it is just as likely that they were willing to shake off their Liberal overcoat in order to seek political power. They thought the British public did not have the stomach for an anti Empire party. In the middle stood the Liberal Unionists. They broadly supported the Gladstone policies but saw a need for pragmatism, a sort of having their cake and eating it approach. They saw that political hostility to the Empire was electorally unpopular but equally they rejected the views of the Liberal Imperialists who seemed prepared to abandon Liberal principles altogether in the cause of electoral expediency.

Khaki Election 1900
Boer War

The Conservative Government in response.

The Salisbury Government with Balfour as the Marquis of Salisbury’s right hand man, Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office and Brodrick at the War Office tried to face down the Liberal opposition to the war which was based on two main fronts;

  • that the war should not be fought at all
  • that the war was being fought badly

The arguments were placed so strongly that in the Autumn of 1900 a general election was held. Thus the election became a Khaki Election.

David Lloyd George stands for the Liberal Party.

One of the candidates put forward by the Liberal Party was a young Welsh solicitor named David Llloyd George. In the Birmingham heartland of the Conservative Joseph Chamberlain he had the audacity to make a speech so anti war that he was deemed a pacifist. The crowd were furious to hear his speech, after all their own ‘Joe’ was an incisive imperialistic politician whom they loved. The crowd stormed the platform and Llloyd George had to make his escape disguised as a police officer, this the man who would become leader of the country through the most difficult of times.

Who won the Khaki Election?

Joseph Chamberlain notoriously claiming that ‘a vote for the Liberal is a vote for the Boer’ really voiced the feeling in the country and the result was a landslide defeat for the Liberals. The Conservative Party was returned to power, the country wanted full support for those fighting the war and did not want a change in leaders mid – stream. Sir Henry Campbell – Bannerman led the Liberal opposition but the steam seemed to have gone out the Liberal opposition to the war. Into the new Parliament came two new members Andrew Bonar Law and the young fresh faced Winston Churchill.

Khaki election 1900
Sir Henry Campbell – Bannerman

The Boer War continued.

The methods used by the British Army to defeat the Boers were strongly opposed by both pro-Boers and mainstream Liberals. In response to the guerrilla tactics used by the Boers, the British army tried to cut off their supplies by rounding up civilians and putting them into concentration camps. The concentration camps were the vilest of places, the death rate very high, 28,000 people many women and children perished in these camps, in total more than the number of troops killed. Reformer Emily Hobhouse visited the camps on behalf of the South African Women and Children Distress Fund. On her return to England she campaigned and attempted to publicise her findings and used the Liberals as a political vessell to achieve this.

The end of the Boer War.

The peace of Vereeniging in May 1902 brought the Boer War to an end. Uncomfortable questions were now asked about the government’s conduct of a war in which the world’s largest Empire and who had spent an immense fortune of Empire money had taken two-and-a-half years to defeat two tiny republics and in doing so brought global shame upon the nation.

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