Liberal Reforms Essay, Research Paper
In this essay I will show to what extent the Liberal Government of 1906 to 1914 set up a welfare state in Britain, why they were so concerned with the health of the nation, what reforms they introduced in order to improve the nation s health and why this was a period of major reform in Britain.
A welfare state is a state with social services controlled or financed by the Government. These service aim to protect society s weakest members from the cradle to the grave. As Beveriage described it, a welfare state is the provision of services for the prevention of disease, squalor, want, idleness and ignorance . (1)
The social reforms seemed to run counter to the laissez-faire individualist ideology of the nineteenth century Liberal party. This held to the view that the less state regulation the better. In the 1906 general election the Liberal party won a landslide victory on the basis, not of a programme of social reform, but in defence of free trade. This was a traditional Liberal policy, which was challenged by the unionist s adoption of tariff reform or protection as a response to the rise of foreign competition. The Liberals success was due to the identification in the public mind of free trade with cheap food.
For a variety of reasons it seems likely that whichever party had won the 1906 election, a number of social reforms would have been passed. There were changing attitudes to poverty. Instead of moral judgements which attributed poverty to idleness or drunkenness there was an increasing acceptance of economic and environmental explanations.
At the beginning of the twentieth century a series of social enquires showed the extent of poverty in Britain. In particular the social surveys of Booth and Rowntree helped to change attitudes. Charles Booth, a wealthy ship owner, carried out between 1886 and 1903 an immense investigation published in several volumes of The Life and Labour of the People of London . Booth s sources of information included the census, school board attendance officer reports, interviews with poor law boards of guardians, teachers, police, sanitary inspectors, trade union officials, charity workers and the clergy. Booth s original intention was to disprove what he considered to be exaggerated estimates to the extent of poverty in London. In fact his findings confirmed these estimates to be lower than to the actual level of poverty in the capital. Booth showed that thirty per cent of the population of London were living below the poverty line , a minimum income of between eighteen and twenty-one shillings per week for a family with three children was the case for the majority.
Seebohm Rowntree s Poverty: A Study of Town Life was influence by Booth s work. Rowntree investigated his own city of York. Taking Booth s idea of the poverty line he went on to distinguish between primary and secondary poverty. Primary poverty existed where income was insufficient to meet basic needs; Secondary poverty was where the income was sufficient but was misspent so as to produce poverty. Rowntree identified the main causes of primary poverty as low wages, large families, unemployment, old age or the death of the chief wage earner. His findings that nearly twenty-eight per cent of York s population were living in poverty confirmed Booth s figures for London.
Public conscience was also shocked by the fact that thirty-four per cent of recruits for military service in the Boer War failed to meet the army s standard of height, weight and eyesight, at a rejection rate of one in three. The Boer War led to a campaign for national efficiency, which flourished at the turn of the century. This reflected concern at the slower growth of the economy and the relative decline in industrial production compared with Germany and the United States. Politicians like Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Rosebery expressed this concern. It was argued that national efficiency and imperial strength required a better-educated and healthier population. Welfare services would contribute to the efficiency of the workers. The idea of national efficiency became part of the language of the time and many found it reasonable to express their support for social measures in such terms.
The Liberal Government addressed the problem of disease and the overall poor health of the nation by passing several bills, each aiming to protect the vulnerable members of society, such as the children. In 1907 the Medical Inspectors Act dealt particularly with the problem of disease in schools. Free medical inspections took place following the Act, but although the Act highlighted the ill health of the nations children, it did nothing to alleviate the problem, for most parents could not afford medical treatment and the government did not offer it. Part one of the National Insurance Acts of 1911 provided health insurance for workers who earned less the one hundred and sixty pounds annually. This Act was triggered both by the issue of national deficiency and from the tuberculosis outbreak which was claiming seventy-five thousand lives each year. Though this Act was significant in that it was the first time that the Government had offered such insurance it failed to provide for the sick employees family, only the employee himself was covered. Also sickness benefit lessened as time passed and after twenty-six weeks it was infinitesimal. The final reform act passed by the Liberals which concentrated on lessening poor health was the Workman s compensation Act of 1906, which provided compensation for injury sustained while working.
The problem of want was one, which affected many living in Britain, particularly the working class. People living in poverty wanted for money and food, and the Liberal Government combated this indigence through reforms such as the Old Age Pensions Act, the School Meals Act and Acts which established a minimum wage. The first reform passed by the Liberals which targeted want was aimed at children, the Schools Meals Act of 1906. This was a cautious measure, successful in terms of the number of school meals provided; from three million in 1906 to fourteen million in 1914, but limited in that there was no compulsion in the Act until 1914 and by 1912 over half the local authorities had not set up school meals. The Liberals also provided for the elderly, through the Old Age Pension Act of 1908. This provided a pension of five shillings to any person over the age of seventy. However, the amount offered was simply not enough to raise poor pensioners above the poverty line. Also the pensions were only given to those over seventy, the average life span of a working class adult was much shorter than this. The National Insurance Act of 1911, part two, provided unemployment insurance for people working in industries which were badly hit by periodic unemployment; seasonal trades such as shipbuilding and construction. This Act was limited in its effectiveness because it only covered seven trades and unemployment benefit lasted for only fifteen weeks in one year. However, it was the first time that the Government had accepted any responsibility for the unemployment instead of thinking that unemployment was a result of individual idleness. Through the Sweated Trades Act and the Trade Boards Act of 1909, the Liberal Government set up boards to negotiate minimum wage levels for non-unioned Sweated Trades . The problem with these Acts was that they failed to establish an exact definition of a minimum wage. Idleness was perceived as a problem by society, which continued to be influence, by laissez-faire attitudes of the previous century. Despite the fact that the problem of unemployment was not solely caused by idleness, the Liberals passed a bill aimed at stopping laziness; The Labour Exchanges 1909. Labour Exchanges enabled employers and employees to register requirements at a central location and was therefore, much more effective than the previous system. This Act was very successful in providing jobs for the unemployed; 1913 employed three thousand people employed through the scheme daily. Ignorance and squalor, two key figured according to Beveriage, of a society not protected by a welfare state, were virtually ignored by the Liberal Government. Through the Education Act of 1910 provided some guidance for students who were leaving school, nothing else was done to improve the conditions in schools. Those in state education continued to leave school poorly educated with few if any qualifications. The Liberals passed no reforms, which tackled the issue of squalor. Better housing would have lessened poverty and disease and therefore would have produced a more health nation. Despite this, no attempts were made to alleviate the problems of slum housing and the consequent squalor. The Liberal government attempted to protect workers through reforms such as the Coal Mines act of 1908, which established an eight hour day for miners and the Shop Hours Act of 1911whcih entitled shop assistants to a weekly half day holiday, established a maximum working week of sixty hours and which provided washing facilities in every shop. The problem of these reforms was that the targeted only small groups of the working class such as miners and those in sweated trades and many continued to be unprotected by the Government.
Foreign influences were also important in the introduction of social reforms. In the 1880 s Germany had launched a system of sickness and accident insurance. In 1898, New Zealand introduced Old Age Pensions. Lloyd George even visited Germany in 1908 to see how they had set up their social reforms. Britain did not want to be left behind and have the unhealthiest population in the world this was they embarked on a policy of sweeping social reform.
Another influence was the change of opinion often referred to as the rise of collectivism . This influenced Liberals like Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill and amounted to a New Liberalism , which tried to reconcile individualism and social justice. This was a reflection of the rise of socialism seen in the growth of the trade unions and of the new Labour Party. The Labour Movement was calling for old age pensions and for action against unemployment. The Liberals had to keep on eye on the Labour threat and so had to deal with social questions. Social reform was regarded by many as an antidote to socialism. Thus the pressure on the Liberals to introduce social reforms and would have been felt by any government at this time. Where the two differed was over how to finance social reforms; the Liberals favoured direct taxation, while the unionists preferred to pay for them out of protectionist duties.
By 1914 the Liberal Government had passed a number of very important social reforms. Concern over the health of the young led to the provision of school meals for needy children in 1906. The following year saw the introduction of school medical inspection. In 1908, juvenile courts and Borstals were set up as an alternative to prison for young people. Old Age Pensions had long been proposed and in 1908 the Government introduced a non-contributory scheme for the payment of five shillings a week for those over seventy. Also in the same year miners secured an eight-hour day. In 1909 the Trade Boards Act tried to protect workers in the sweated trades by setting up trade boards to determine minimum wages and maximum hours. The climax of the Liberal Social reforms was the National Insurance Act of 1911. Compulsory insurance against unemployment in trades was introduced for the benefit of about two and quarter million workers. Employer, employee and the state made weekly contributions to the insurance fund. Health insurance was also introduced in 1911. Everyone earning up to one hundred and sixty pounds per annum was compulsorily insurance against ill health. The scheme however did not cover the member of the employee s family and the employee.
In conclusion the Liberal Government of 1906 to 1914 helped to establish a welfare state but by no means completed the transition from a laissez-faire Government to a true welfare state. The Reforms were a radical step forward and they helped the elderly, through the pension scheme, the sick, through health insurance, the young, through school meals and free medical inspections and the unemployed, through unemployment benefit and Labour Exchanges. These Reform Acts signified the acceptance by the Government of their responsibility for the welfare of the nation. However, most of these reforms were limited and failed to make true inroads into the problem of poverty. The issue of housing and education were not tackled, unemployment benefits were limited to a select few trades, and a National Health Service were merely hinted at by the establishment of the health insurance scheme. The 1909 People s Budget proposed to pay the cost of the new pension scheme it increased income, income tax, and death duties and imposed a super-tax on high incomes. Therefore the Liberal Reforms were stepping stones towards a true welfare state. By establishing the principle of Government duty to intervene, but the Government only laid the foundations for a welfare state; they did not set it up.
(1) The Concise Dictionary of quotations
(1) D Fraser, The Evolution of the British Welfare State.
(2) J R Hay, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms.
(3) GR Searle, The Liberal Party: Triumph and Disintegration.
(4) P Thane, The Origins of British Social Policy.