Snap elections: a brief historical guide

A week ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May caught almost everyone by surprise by calling an election for the beginning of June. As the dust settles and the party machines grind into action,  Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys) takes a brief look at the key facts.

What counts as a snap election?

An election called earlier than the conventional or legally required date.

When would Britain ordinarily have an election?

The simple answer is every five years. This hasn’t always been the case. From 1715 the Septennial Act decreed that parliaments would expire after seven years; in 1911 this was shortened to five years. However, an election could still be called early if the monarch (usually at the request of the Prime Minister from the mid-nineteenth century onwards) used their royal proclamation to dissolve parliament. This meant that Prime Ministers could decide to have parliament dissolved and an election called at a politically advantageous moment. The 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act theoretically changed this by stipulating that parliamentary general elections should take place every five years. This also removed the reliance (albeit ceremonial) on the royal prerogative for the dissolution of parliament.

So how can Theresa May call a General Election now?

The 2011 Act left open the possibility of an election in the event of a vote of no confidence in the Government or if a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons voted for one. Theresa May took the second route, and on Wednesday 19 April the House voted in favour, with only 13 MPs voting against an early election.

Does this render the 2011 Act meaningless?

Not quite. It could be argued that the willingness of the Commons to assent to an early election indicates that any Prime Minister with sufficient support in the House could call an election whenever it appears expedient to do so. However, Theresa May has justified the move on the basis that Brexit negotiations require unity at Westminster, and that an election is therefore in the national interest. The sceptical might suggest that she is acting with more partisan interests in mind, but whatever her motivations the background of the Brexit vote has provided some fairly extraordinary circumstances. It is unlikely that in less exceptional circumstances there would have been such a large majority in favour of an early election.

When has Britain had a snap election before?

If we count a snap election as one called less than four years into a parliament, there were seven in the twentieth century. The last two were both in 1974: one in February and one in October. The former was called by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath as part of his attempt to manage the ongoing miners’ strike. His appeal to the electorate for a ‘strong government with a firm mandate’ to face down the trade unions failed to gain him a majority vote, and the election resulted in a hung parliament. Heath resigned his premiership, and Labour leader Harold Wilson took his place in Downing Street at the head of a minority Labour government. Having had some success in resolving the miners’ strike, Wilson then took the opportunity to attempt to secure a majority by calling another snap election for October of that year. He succeeded, but with a very narrow margin of three seats.

However, other snap elections have proved highly advantageous for past Prime Ministers. Labour PM Harold Wilson called a snap election for March 1966 in the hope of enlarging his Commons majority of 4 MPs and managed to increase the Labour majority to 96.

What next?

On 3 May parliament will be dissolved so official campaigning can start, and on 8 June polling stations will open. Given recent political surprises it would seem foolish to make any firm predictions, but current opinion polls suggest that a Conservative victory is highly likely. In the meantime politicians, election officials, the media, and many unregistered voters are frantically trying to make preparations for an election they weren’t expecting for another three years.


Further reading:

Image: By secretlondon123 (Flickr: polling station) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons:

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