general elections

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Have changed over the years. Until the 17th cent., there was no statutory requirement about their frequency, and the Triennial Act of 1694, which laid down that a general election must be held every three years at most, was the first effective legal provision. In 1716 the Septennial Act lengthened the period to seven years, an interval which lasted until the Parliament Act of 1911 reduced it to five years.

Many seats were uncontested right up until the end of the 19th cent. Even in 1900, 165 candidates in Great Britain were returned unopposed, and a further 69 in Ireland. Today it is normal for every seat to be contested.

In the 17th and 18th cents. general elections scarcely merited the term ‘general’. They were essentially struggles between magnates and other interests for local paramountcy, and national factors played little part. Indeed, as late as 1830 it was not clear whether the Whigs or the Tories had won the general election, since many MPs sat loose to party. Elections in the 18th cent. did not choose governments, which, with heavy powers of patronage, could normally expect to carry any election. The decline of patronage made this increasingly hard and also created a vacuum which was filled by organized parties. Nowadays, general elections are held to choose a government and the choice of MPs is usually incidental to that decision.

Subjects: British History.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.