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The Liberal Government’s Welfare Reforms in the years 1906-1914 Essay

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Was New Liberalism the most important factor behind the Liberal Government’s Welfare Reforms in the years 1906-1914? Explain your answer.

New Liberalism was simply an ideology, encompassing reforms spurred by other, more important factors. Crucially was the need to reform, regarding the low national efficiency. As a 1905 report said ‘No country, however rich, can permanently hold its own in the race of international competition if hampered by an increasing load of dead weight [of poverty]…’. Secondly, was the desire to reform, which housed incentives such as the poverty, moral and social obligation, and tangible electoral victory. New Liberalism didn’t evoke reform; it simply housed other factors for it.

Although New Liberalism as a new ideology demanded reform in the Party, it is too vague a factor to have had any direct correlation with the ‘reforms’ of 1906-14. In this aspect, it was an ‘umbrella’ factor. “New Liberalism” was perhaps inevitable, as Churchill said “this poor man is here as a result of economic causes which have been too long unregulated”- in other words, the realisation individualism wasn’t working. Indeed, the ideology was not even a product of the Liberals, but grew out of an intellectual tradition formulated by L.T. Hobhouse and J. Hobson in the 1880s, arguing that if people were impoverished through no fault of their own, self-reliance was undermined.

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Consequently, New Liberalism was merely the opportunistic by-product of the coinciding findings of Hobhouse with the writings of Booth and Rowntree, which raised moral and social awareness. New Liberalism was evident in all the reforms of the party, contravening old liberalism, an example of which is the National insurance Act, 1911. Being governmentally interfering, and therefore traditionally anti-liberalist, this threw aside the conventions of working-class laziness and provided the worker with money and job networking should he be out of work.

However, cynical though it is, most of the reforms also acted in the interest of national efficiency, and so the state of the nation on an international scale was a big incentive to introduce collectivist policies, if not the biggest. Recruitment for the Boer War of 1898 highlighted how poor the nation’s health was, when one third of the population were unfit to fight. Furthermore, Britain struggled to defeat the Boers, despite being a big, imperial nation, and them a poor, insignificant force. Consequently, through the exposure of the nation’s poor health, the Children’s Charter was introduced. This involved the free school meals act of 1906, in which local authorities were given the power to provide free school meals for needy children, if they wished to use it, and by 1914, this became compulsory (the previous Conservative government had refused to listen to the campaign).

Similarly, in 1907, the Liberals introduced compulsory medical inspections in schools, and again in 1912, government grants were made available to cover treatment and school clinics began to be set up. This measure shows the government were realising that, to keep their country and empire great, they had to have more involvement in the maintenance of the nation. Likewise, when Beveridge and Lloyd George -worried about unemployment – visited Germany and saw the reforms they and other countries were making, there is no doubt they took influence from them, and so similar policies were introduced in England. Germany was growing economically, and Britain falling behind in terms of economic growth; thus, the imitating Insurance Act of 1910-11 was produced. This showed an effort to boost efficiency by directly shadowing Germany, by this time hugely prosperous, in the hope to improve their own country economically too.

Also, the findings of Booth and Rowntree too, ultimately helped lead to social reform through their provision of real, statistical evidence needed to boost the case for state intervention. Charles Booth carried out a series of investigations in London, unearthing that 30% of the population were living in “abject poverty”, including 45% of old people. It was discovered that, contrary to popular belief, people were poor because of factors such as old age, sickness, and an underperforming economy.

Subsequently, Booth organised and led a campaign in favour of a system pensions paid for out of taxation, which won Labour and Trade Union support, and which would have healed the problem of poverty for the elderly.. By no coincidence was the Old Age Pensions Act passed 3 years later, which – heeding the advice of Booth – was a non-contributory scheme, financed by the government out of taxation, and providing 5 shillings a week to those over the age of 70. Furthermore, to appease poverty from unemployment, the government set up a ‘labour exchange’ and insurance principal; creating a network of exchange information about local work, and also planned a workers insurance scheme which workers would pay into and, in times of the aforementioned poverty, draw on what they needed.

The moral and social justice included in Booth and Rowntree’s work was a huge contributing factor in the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, largely regarded as a significant step forward in terms of governmental intervention. Lloyd George also linked the two, by 1911 noticing “The administration of the Old Age Pension Act has revealed a mass of poverty…”. Moral and social justice were at the heart of many other Liberal policies, for example; the moral obligation to help the ill worker manifested in the Health Insurance Act, 1911, through which a fund was created that the worker would pay four pence into, the employer three, and the state two. When the worker was off work ill, they would receive ten shillings a week sick pay for 13 weeks,

Furthermore, the Liberals still had to produce policies that differentiated them from the Conservatives. The free school meals policy, for example, directly distinguished them, as the Tories had refused to pass the act a few years before, as did they with the ‘People’s Budget’. Lloyd George’s ‘Budget’ conflicted with the Tory ideology of not taxing the rich, with the Liberal government looking to ‘provide extra cash for the old age pensions and dreadnought battleships… [and] outwit the House of Lords” (Pearce Stewart). An extra �7 million was raised by increasing higher rates of income tax on those earning over �3,00 per annum, essentially targeting the rich, which conflicted with the core of Conservative values. Liberalism had the upper hand on Conservatism.

The politicians of the party not only wanted to differentiate Liberalism, but also themselves as political heavyweights. For example, Churchill’s Trade Boards Act (1909) broke new ground, defending the workers Charles Booth had labelled “a body of reckless, starving competitors for work,” but like many of the Liberals’ policies it wasn’t home grown, and the plight of the ‘sweated industries’ had been publicized by the National Anti-Sweating League.

Lloyd George is another prime example, and historical interpretation suggests his proposed constitutional reform of the Lords was an attempt to put himself on the political map, force the back-down of the Lords (“peers against the people”) as well as winning votes on the back of this controversy. His ‘People’s Budget’ drew on the criticisms launched on the House of Lords for refusing a budget on monetary matters-money, of course, provided by the taxpayer , and them being unelected patrons- something Lloyd George emphasised in ensuing publicity. Indeed, Beatrice Webb has argued “Lloyd George and Winston Churchill have practically taken the limelight, not merely from their own colleagues, but from the Labour Party.”

With the Labour Party proving a growing threat electorally, New Liberalism was an attempt to “spike the guns” [Beatrice Webb] of the party through popular socialist reforms. Labour gained 29 seats in the 1906 election, and up until that point, the Liberals had been mainly out of power, forcing them to recognise Labour as a threat.

As a consequence of this competition, the Trade Disputes Act (1906), which reversed the Taff Vale decision and would gain vital working class votes, was taken from the Labour Party’s own bill, and returned the right to strike and picket peacefully to the Unions. The Liberals realised if they didn’t deliver, Labour would continue to grow. Again, The Mines Act of 1908, which introduced a maximum eight-hour working day for miners, ( “a political compromise”-Pearce Stewart) was another reform which Labour were sympathetic too. Furthermore, with extended suffrage to the working class, Liberals had to get the working man’s vote, and so their socialist reforms came at a time when Labour’s ‘guns’ would have been most appealing to the electorate.

Overall, it is clear that the Welfare Reforms were influenced entirely on the climate of the time, and New Liberalism simply put a name to this. Yes, moral and social justice unearthed by Booth and Rowntree were important, and the party still had to settle on their political identity, but poverty and its injustice had been around for decades and reform could have waited if need be; furthermore, Labour, although showing potential, were not a real threat until some years later. The welfare reforms were introduced because Britain as a country was failing, and ‘New Liberalist Reforms’ were, (arguably), just a semi-socialist guise focused on increasing national efficiency. That’s not to say the reforms wouldn’t have ever been introduced had Britain not struggled with the Boers; they would have been delayed, and were created in 1906-14 as a reaction to the (international) state of the nation.

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