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The Culture of Elections in Modern Britain



This article develops some of the key themes in Electing Our Masters (2009). Its focus is the cultural history of electioneering, and in particular the shifting relationship between politicians and public from the late eighteenth century to the present. Elections are viewed as rituals structured around reproducing, and sometimes redefining, classed and gendered relations of power. Election rituals long pre-dated democracy and existed primarily to soften the reality of dramatically unequal power relations. Considerable licence was granted to those excluded from formal politics; within limits they were to ‘have their say’. This rationale collapsed in the wake of the First World War and full-blown democratization. But the shift to a mass electorate demanded less a change of political style than a subtle recalibration of politicians' expectations about the character and role of the crowd. Britain was inching towards a more democratic understanding of the relationship between politician and public, but one still framed in a dominant patrician style. Male dress code softened, political leadership became more informal and homely, but there was no great breakthrough to demotic politics until the late twentieth century.