The liberal government reforms 1906-1914

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Consider the view that the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul Between 1906 and 1914 the Liberal Government passed many reforms concerning the old the young, the sick and those without work. At the time the acts were fresh and far reaching and some believe them to be the foundations of the welfare state, to what we know it today. The acts were considered radical as a shift of attitudes towards the poor and needy seemed to be occurring. The liberal party pre this period stood for certain principles and ideologies which are referred to as individualism. Up until this period the government only intervened in reasons such as law and order and protecting the country from attack. It was seen as each individuals obligation to be responsible for their own well being.

Poverty amongst the working classes was often seen as a circumstance caused by drunkenness or idleness[1]. To consider the view that that the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul is to regard the reforms passed as acts of the government clutching at straws because they wanted to grant just enough change to head off the Socialists and keep the old way of society in place and to maintain electoral popularity, rather than acts of genuine sincerity towards welfare change. It will be argued that the new merged Labour party was laying down pressure thus became a major reason that the Liberals had to try and . head off socialist advance The difficulties in the question is that there are many views as to why the reforms were passed and some reforms did reach extremely far reaching measures, making it easy to understand why one would come to the opinion that the acts passed were those of radical sincerity.

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Other problems are that when researching reform bills passed there have only been a selected few mentioned. If each reform passed in this period was to be investigated the question proposed for discussion would greatly exceed the expected words of the essay. To establish authenticity to the view that the liberal government reforms were acts of maintaining Edwardian society this essay will include information on vital events leading up to each reform that I feel is of great significance for the validity of the essay. Arguments and sources by historians will also be mentioned in order to add a wider scale of argument into the essay. The essay will be structured by exploring each group in which the reforms belonged to, beginning with the first group of measures that were passed, which were those affecting children, followed by those effecting the old, those affecting the sick and those affecting the British workforce.

January 1906, the liberal government won the general election in a landslide result. The Liberals won 401 whilst counting on the support of 29 labour members. Although when the liberals were in power it was known as an ’era of great social reform’, there was vague mention of reforms pre election. It would be then, extremely likely that reform was most certainly not an intended measure but a consequence of what the essay will be exploring greater into, that, when in power, the Labour party pressured the liberal government to push through reform bills. A manner of being that was accepted by he government in order to grant crumbs to head off socialist advance.[2] The liberals were victorious almost everywhere, even in well known conservative areas. The argument of tariff reform lost the Conservatives a lot of support as the Liberal Party promoted free trade. Already it is clear then, that to get into power and to retain it, that the liberals had to rely on right wing support in the conservatives, which mean that any reforms passed needed to suit this way of thinking.

However, tariff reform was a programme that failed to attract the working classes, therefore the liberals had also gained power on votes from the left wing too, as well as making a pact with the labour party to secure a non-conservative victory[3]4. The fact that there had all of a sudden grown a strong emergence of the labour party in the house of commons is extremely important when it comes to arguing that social reforms passed in this period were concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society. The new labour party had emerged from strong opposition of the Taff Vale Case, 1901. In the general election of 1906, 30 candidates that stood as straight labour managed to win seats in parliament and 24 candidates that stood as lib labour.

This meant that there obviously a high proportion of the population that were supporting socialist ideas within the Labour party. The reform act of 1867 helped the situation allowing the franchise to be available to all householder men, for the first time certain working class men were able to insert input to who was to hold government[4]5. The first of the many reforms passed by the Liberal party concerned children. The provision of meals act 1906, is a prime example of an act passed primarily out of a desire to head off the socialist advance. This is evident as the firstly proposed bill, put forward by the Labour party, not the liberals was considerably watered down when finally passed. The labour party requested that school children were guaranteed to be fed school meals provided by their local authority. The final act passed did not completely meet the needs of the labour party as all it managed to obtain was that local authorities had the right to provide school meals, it did not directly secure it. Even by 1939 less than 50% of school children were actually being provided this service.

Instead of opposing to the private members bill in parliament the liberals met half way. The growing pressure of the labour party was the main reason for the act. The liberals had to try and maintain balance and were able to justify their decisions to more individualist members of the party by reasons of political pragmatism, they did not to any extent, want to witness the labour party grow a political advantage over them. In essence then, it was an act that had to be passed in order to head off socialist advance[5]3. The Education (Administrative Provisions), act (1907) , again, was another implement pushed on by back bench consistency. It had actually been proposed with the education act a year before but had lost in the house of Lords. Prominently it seemed the pressure was mounting. The liberals knew what Labour had in mind and had to find a way to reach the conditions on a passable scale that they could get away with.

This is quite evident as just before the act was passed the liberals had to reject another one of Labours proposals concerning the same bill as they had already drawn up their own. Their bill assured that medical inspection will be provided in each school[6]6. Like the provision of meals act (1906), it was a product stimulated by the 1904 Physical Deterioration Report. The report noted that it was vital for children to acquire a fare amount of cleanliness and nutrition. It recommend that children should be given the chance to have “every branch of domestic hygiene, including the preparation of food, the practice of household cleanliness, the tendance and feeding of young children”, and made recommendations for Medical inspections of children in schools, Free school meals for the very poor and Training in mother craft[7]7. Clearly, the liberals were meeting with some of the demands of the report, to what extent, is a different question.

The act did assure that medical inspections were free, but treatment, however, was not. As mentioned the provision of meals act (1906) was immoderately diminished in effect similarly to the Education (Administrative Provisions). At the same time the Physical Deterioration Report was a direct response from the Director General of the Army Medical Services. He claimed that the Boer War had sufficiently suffered due to the poor health of recruiters. He stressed that it was crucial that future generations did not have to end up the same way. This is an idea know as national efficiency. It is argued by many historians that National Efficiency was a direct reason for many of the reforms passed in the period 1906- 1914. J R Hays states “school meals and medical inspections of school-children were both products of the climate of opinion created by the Boer war”[8]8. If this is the case it is vital to note that these opinions are of concern, but most likely of concern from the socialist elite.

Although the government saw this as a problem it was one which was being stressed by other directions and could not be ignored due to the importance of the Physical Deterioration Report. It was another issue being thrown at them which would be impossible to decline, but used to the governments advantage when faced with objections to acts from the more individualist members of the party. Previous to 1909, although sufficient bills were passed, none touched as close to public approval than the Old age pensions act (1909). Around half a million men and women benefited from the act.

Although, again there were draw backs. The people that took advantage of the act had to be over seventy and not have criminal convictions. Though it can be argued that there was no longer the moral stigma attached when applying like the previous poor law, which saw participants as victims of their own moral setbacks. This is all well and good, but the reasoning behind the bill is again one of heading off a socialist advance rather than of moral concern for the elderly[9]9. “As late as 1906 the Liberals, as a party were not committed to old age pensions” J R Hay quotes 1[10]0 This is most certainly the case. Britain was already twenty years passed talk off the bill and many other countries such as Germany and New Zealand had already taken up the idea. When the liberals came to office they were faced with increasing pressure not just from The Labour party (When made into a parliamentary strength it was the labour parties first debate to push through old age pensions), but from the co operative movement, the TUC, the Fabians along side the friendly societies and the Charity Organisation Society, both of whom had previously opposed to the idea.1[11]1 Although aims in the act may have been different between each society the general principle of old age pensions was there. Administrative momentum is quite clear when it comes to old age pensions.

In 1907 three liberal seats were lost to Labour in a by election. In his famous quote Lloyd George, soon to become the Liberal parties famous Chancellor of the Exchequer admitted “It is time we did something that appealed straight to the people-it will, I think help to stop this electoral rot and that is most necessary”.1[12]2 The Liberals knew it was time to push the bill forward in order to make sure they would withhold a political advance. Again the bill had to be levelled out in order to grant just enough leeway to head of socialist advance. Therefore it did not meet the requirements of the Labour party, as they stressed that many individuals would not live past seventy, therefore would not be able to enjoy the scheme. As well as the fact that 5s to a single adult and 7s between a married couple was just not enough. Nevertheless, the scheme did meet the main demands of the labour party that the bill was non-contributory based, which at the time was extremely radical and did indicate that the poor did need state help and were not in that position through their own moral drawbacks1[13]3.

The growth of the Labour party can also take responsibility for many reforms passed in this revolutionary period concerning workers and those without work. For forty years miners had been campaigning for an eight hour day and in 1908 the eight hour day bill was introduced. A long hard battle been won and when you study the reasoning behind it close enough it is clear to see why. Apart from the fact the Liberals lost seats to Labour in a by election a year before, sitting in government were a vast amount of miner Mps1[14]5. It was the Labour of Exchange act(1909), however, that really stood out. In working class areas Liberal M.P’s were fearful of losing seats to labour M.Ps. So when there seemed to be an unemployment crisis it was the Liberals in these consistencies that pushed for government action.

Yet another need to head of the Labour party in order to help maintain Edwardian Society. Winston Churchill, newly president of the board of trade responded to the pleas, and working with a young civil servant William Beveridge, developed a new scheme to deal with these issues. The Labour Exchanges act (1909), was one half of the plan that Churchill personally saw go through. All throughout the country Labour Exchanges were set up. The plan actually intended an unemployment insurance alongside the Labour Exchanges but Churchill did not complete the scheme as he was promoted to Home Office in 1910. Instead Lloyd George took over and the scheme was to become one half of the National Insurance Act(1911).1[15]6 The National Insurance Act (1911) was one which came in two parts and affected the sick and the British workforce.

It is by all means one of the biggest and crucial act passed by the liberal government ass many historians agree that it was this act that crucially evolved into the British welfare state. It was a scheme passed saw that all wage earners paid a set amount each week and their employer added to that too. In return free medical attention was available. There was also help to those who had no opportunity to work. If needed a certain amount of money was avaliable to workers if off work for a certain amount of time. The scheme, which only included industries such as construction, engineering, and ship building ensured that, if unemployed a worker would receive 7 shillings a week for a period of 15 weeks in a year1[16]7. The reasoning for national insurance no doubt descended from realisation that there was actually a huge problem when it came to the general state of the working classes.

Physical deterioration reports conducted by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, brought to light in estimated figures the real extent of Britain’s poverty. However, genuine sincerity towards poverty and ill living amongst the lower classes of Britain does not seem to be a case of why help was being offered. It was a time of great change, genuine concerns for the poor were being realised and expressed more than ever before. Other countries were using insurance schemes and the government knew that it was time for change. Like most of the reforms passed the scheme did not completely meet the needs of the Labour party and others on the left who saw the scheme as not far reaching enough as it involved money that had to be deducted form wages. Again the Liberals managed to half heart ably meet requests from the labour party but not completely see it through. Kier Hardy, head of the labour party saw the scheme as weak as it did not touch on the underlying problem, the capitalist scheme, as it was not financed by higher taxation of the wealthy1[17]8.

Between 1906 and 1914 there were a number of reform acts passed that would lead one to believe lay the foundations of a welfare state. However, at the time it seems evident that by no means did the government know this was occurring. This is due to the fact that if the liberal government really wanted a system like the welfare state they would have given the acts a little more comprehensive coverage than they managed to. Each act was watered down to suit the political needs of situations occurring between governments at the time. The newly emerged labour party stood for the workers of the country, and as mentioned it is clear that the problems of British poverty was greatly becoming evident and more and more people were willing to get involved in the matter.

Therefore the liberal party knew that they stood as a huge Threat, so had to keep themselves as middle ground as they possibly could. Therefore the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul. The shift of the well known laissez faire attitudes was a result of social change and circumstance. Each act did not completely meet those on the left sides needs but at the same time it is important to note often upset the needs of the higher classes. It is also vital to remember that most acts mentioned are bills passed that have been talked about for years. Even if passing them were new at the time the thought behind them were far from fresh.


Fraser Dereck, The Evolution Of The Welfare State ,London: Macmillan,1984 Hay. J. R , The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914,London: Macmillan, 1983 Lednum, The Liberal Reforms of 1906 – 1914, 07/09/2006,, 25/10/2006, Levenstein H.A Revolution at the table: the transformation of the American diet, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993 M. P Stuart and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History, London, Routledge, 1992 Rubinstein W.D , TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN, New York , Macmillan, 2003 [1]Lednum, The Liberal Reforms of 1906 – 1914, 2006 [2] D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 147. [3]4 J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 25 [4]5 W.D Rubinstein, TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003) 25 [5]3 W.D Rubinstein, TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003) 38. [6]6 D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 148. [7]7 H.A Levenstein (Revolution at the table: the transformation of the American diet), Oxford University Press, New York, 1993 [8]8 J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 43. [9]9 J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 44 [10]0 10 J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 46 [11]1 1 D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 148. [12]2 12 D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 154. [13]3 13 M. P Stuart and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History (Routledge, 1992) 202. [14]5 15 D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 171. [15]6 16 M. P Stuart and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History (Routledge, 1992) 205. [16]7 17 D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 163. [17]8 18 W.D Rubinstein, TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003) 59.

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