Ian Garrick Mason


Articles and Essays


San Francisco Chronicle -- October 31, 2004

Kerry needn't settle for honorable defeat

What Britain's "khaki election" of 1900 can teach the presidential contenders today

by Ian Garrick Mason

Conventional wisdom holds that it is very difficult for opposition parties to defeat governing parties during wartime national elections because it is easy for the incumbent to tar a challenger -- who must, by definition, criticize the government -- with the brush of insufficient patriotism. Such elections are often called "khaki" elections, after the British election of October 1900, which was held smack in the middle of the Boer War in South Africa. The nickname sprang from the khaki uniforms that had replaced the British Army's traditional red coats four years before.

In the general election of 1900, the ruling Conservatives declared that "Every vote given to the Liberals is a vote given to the Boers," and then galloped to a landslide victory. On Tuesday, with Republicans repeatedly making claims almost as bold about John Kerry, does the lesson of the khaki war suggest defeat for the Democrats?

Not necessarily. A closer look at the election of 1900 shows that the Liberals were working under two severe handicaps.

First, though the British army in South Africa had suffered some shocking defeats during "Black Week" in December 1899, spring had brought victory after rousing victory. The Boers' capital, Pretoria, fell to British troops in June, and the Boers' president, Paul Kruger, fled to Europe. Although the war would last another year and a half as an insurgency, at election time the conflict in South Africa seemed almost over. Many troops were already on their way home, and the public mood was celebratory. How could the Liberals argue against victory?

Second, and even more seriously, the Liberal Party was deeply divided. Already split by the retirement of William Gladstone and the controversy over Irish Home Rule, the coming of the war broke the party again, this time into moderates, pro-war "Liberal Imperialists," and anti-war "radicals" (who were habitually referred to as "pro-Boers," whether they supported Boer independence or not).

Naturally, Lord Salisbury's Conservatives capitalized on this situation. Seeking to label the opposition as pro-Boer and anti-British, the Conservatives placed the patriotism theme front and center. A political cartoon issued by party headquarters depicted Liberals supporting Boers in the firing-line. Posters shamelessly exploited support-the-troops sentiment: "Our Brave Soldiers In South Africa Expect That Every Voter This Day Will Do His Duty ... Remember! To Vote For A Liberal Is A Vote To The Boer."

With everything loaded against his party, Liberal leader Henry Campbell- Bannerman would focus on two themes: the government's incompetence at preparing for and managing the war -- for which it had already earned a poor reputation -- and the motives of one of the prime movers behind the war, "Pushful Joe" Chamberlain, secretary of state for the colonies. Already disliked by Liberal voters, Chamberlain was further accused of war profiteering by radical Member of Parliament (and later prime minister) David Lloyd George, based on his family's control of the largest supplier of small- arms ammunition to the British Army. But because Chamberlain could truthfully reply that he had sold all his personal shares in the company, the charges did little damage.

When all the polls were in, the Conservatives had their landslide, taking 402 seats to the Liberals' 183. But the first-past-the-post parliamentary system obscures just how close a race it really was. In the popular vote, the Conservatives took 50 percent to the Liberals' 45 percent.

So while it is true that incumbent administrations have real advantages in "khaki" elections -- and the Republicans in 2004 are certainly pushing these advantages as far as they can -- the fitness of the opposition party may well be the deciding factor in the final votes. Campbell-Bannerman's discipline and presence of mind helped the Liberals to overcome a split party and a generally pro-war electorate to give the Conservatives a run for their money. What Kerry and the Democrats are able to do with a far better hand this year will be revealed on Election Day.