The Labour government in Britain yesterday celebrated its achievements during its first hundred days in office. This phrase has become a favourite one with which to refer to a period of intense political activity, particularly one that immediately follows coming to power. But it has become a cliché and also raises the risk of disparaging comparisons with that most famous Hundred Days at the beginning of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration in 1933.
The original Hundred Days was the period between the arrival of Napoleon in Paris on 20 March 1815, after he escaped from Elba, to 28 June, when King Louis XVIII regained his throne following the Battle of Waterloo. It’s a translation of a comment in the address by Louis de Chabrol de Volvic, the Prefect of Paris, welcoming him back. It was either borrowed or reinvented by others in the nineteenth century, most particularly in China in 1898 as the name given to a failed attempt at reform following the Sino-Japanese war.
The new Labour government is following a precedent set by an earlier Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who said during the 1964 election campaign that Britain needed a programme of a hundred days of dynamic action, similar to the one that John F Kennedy had proposed in 1961. Actually, he hadn’t. Kennedy had ruled out such a rush to correct what he saw as the wrongs of the previous administration; in his inaugural address he said that even a thousand days would be too little (actually, he only had 1036 days in office before his assassination).
Perhaps we ought to insist that all newly-elected political leaders take a small vow, after Kennedy, never to invoke this phrase. Its historical associations are far from uniformly positive, after all: Napoleon was deposed for a second time at the end of his hundred days, and Harold Wilson’s first administration was troubled with a small parliamentary majority of four and was hardly a model for radical reformers.