Britain’s First Election

512px-British_Houses_of_ParliamentThe first British general election was held in 1708, after the Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707 had united the Parliaments of England and Scotland for the first time.

The newly elected Parliament of Britain, rather than just England, was really a continuation of the English parliament that had been elected in 1705, with the addition of 45 Scottish Members to the Commons, and sixteen Scottish representative peers to the Lords.

The election saw the Whigs, led by Lord Somer, gain a majority in the House of Commons, and by November the Whig-dominated parliament had succeeded in pressuring the Queen to accept the Whig Junto into government for the first time since the 1690’s.

The Whig Junto was the name given to a group of leading Whigs, who managed the Whig Party between them. However, the Whigs were unable to take full control of the government, because of the continued presence of the moderate Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin, in the cabinet, and the continued opposition of the Queen.

Hardly anyone could vote in the Eighteen century. Women would not be able to for many years yet, and until 1831, whilst men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote, they could only do so if they owned property. Small rural boroughs were able to elect more MPs than much larger towns and counties. In the 1708 election, contests were held in 95 of the 269 English and Welsh constituencies and 28 of the 45 new Scottish constituencies.

Unlike today, when general elections are held at regular four year intervals, elections could be called at any point between two to six years. The 1708 government was very unpopular, and a new general election was called only two years later, to produce a landslide victory for the Tory party. They would maintain power for another term, but were eventually deposed in similarly dramatic fashion in 1715.

The see-saw pattern of our modern democracy had been established.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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