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Liberal Government 1905-1914 Essay

The Liberal welfare reforms of 1906-1914 saw a remarkable change in government policy from a largely laissez-faire (a policy of non-intervention) approach to a more interventionist approach. The Liberal government, led by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman would do more in the way of social reform than any government before it, establishing an obligation to help the more vulnerable members of society who were not in a position to help themselves.

Two social surveys were published at the beginning of the twentieth century which shook the people of Britain. They undoubtedly paved the way for a whole range of government led reforms. Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, two very wealthy businessmen helped sponsor investigations in to the causes of poverty in Britain. Their findings were; up to 30% of the population of the cities were living in or below the poverty levels, conditions were so bad that people could not pull themselves out of poverty by their own actions. Both Rowntree and Booth agreed that the main causes of poverty were – illness, unemployment and age (the very young and very old)

In 1908 Herbert Henry Asquith took over the Liberals and soon the wheels were set in motion in regards to the social reforms. Asquith would later promote two significant figures whose partnership was said to be the strength behind the reforms – Winston Churchill the young man in a hurry and David Lloyd George the Welsh wizard.

There were many factors and motives for the reforms being passed, such as:

National Security Concerns – During the war, one in three potential army recruits were refused on medical grounds. The government would have to do something to ensure basic health levels among working class men.

Concerns Over National Efficiency – Britain’s position of being a world power was under threat from emerging powers such as Germany. In order to maintain its position it had to run smoothly with a strong, well educated work force.

New Liberalism – The new liberals, Herbert Asquith, Winston Churchill and Lloyd George argued that in certain circumstances it was necessary to intervene in poor people’s lives to help with their social problems.

Political Opportunism – The Liberals were scrutinised for their reforms as many historians thought their introduction was to gain a political advantage rather than helping the poor. The Liberals knew they had to gain support from the working class as they were competing with the newly-created Labour Party.

Between 1906-1914 the Liberals focused on the following four groups in society – the old, the young, the sick and the unemployed.

In 1908 old age pensions were introduced by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George. It gave a pension of five shillings per week (25 pence) to persons over the age of 70 whose income was less than £21 a year. Smaller amounts were paid to people with a slightly higher income. People who earned more than £31.50 a year received no pension, along with individuals who failed to work or who had been in prison. The Act was seen as a step in the right direction; however it did not address all problems. Money received barely paid for basic necessities, financial help was needed long before the elderly reached pension age. More importantly very few working class people reached 70 during this period (life expectancy was just 45)

From 1906 the “Children’s Chapter” allowed local authorities to provide free school meals for poor children. However it wasn’t until 1914 that school meals were made compulsory. In 1907, medical inspections were introduced but it was not until 1912 that free medical treatment was made available that the situation could be better. The reforms included age restrictions being put in place to make it harder for children to buy cigarettes and alcohol. Finally in 1908 juvenile courts and borstals were set up to replace the sending of young offenders to prison.

The Liberal government introduced the National Insurance Act in 1911. For the first time, health insurance was provided for those who paid into the scheme. An employee would pay 4p each week, his employer paid 3p and the remaining 2p came from the state. However the workers wife and children did not benefit from the scheme no matter how sick they became. Further restrictions were that employees would only be paid for a maximum of 26 weeks for being off due to ill health or injury.

The second part of the National Insurance Act dealt with unemployment. Insured workers were given 35p a week for a maximum of 15 weeks in a year if they became unemployed. Again the act only provided insurance for the employee and not his family. It was meant only for covering temporary unemployment and only applied to a small number of trades.

The findings tell us that the Liberals made a remarkable change from a laissez-faire approach to a more interventionist approach. However the reform only made a small indentation into resolving the problems of poverty which faced the people of Britain in 1905-1914. The old age pension scheme paid out inadequate funds that barely paid for basic necessities, very few people ever reached the age of 70. Unemployment benefits were only provided to workers for short periods of time and did not include their family. Free school meals and medical inspections were introduced but very few local authorities were able to provide. Yes the government were willing to intervene to help the poor but the poor had to help themselves also.

“If we see a drowning man we do not drag him to the shore. Instead, we provide help to allow him to swim ashore” – Winston Churchill


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