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To what extent could the Liberal reforms of 1906-1914 be described as a radical attempt to alleviate poverty?
This essay will explore the Liberal reforms introduced between 1906-1914 and assess the government’s efficacy in tackling poverty. In the early 20th century poverty was becoming an increasingly important issue and for a variety of reasons. Poverty had risen up the political agenda not least because of the advent of the Labour Party and their programme for social reform. At one end of the spectrum it is argued that the Liberal Government were crusaders for social reform, fighting oppression and poverty to emancipate the working classes. At the other end, the Liberals were seen as a Government with no plan or coherent strategy to deal with these issues and were not even united; with legislation being introduced piece meal as a response to individual crisis.
At the turn of the century large numbers of men, women and children had to endure deplorable living and working conditions. The estimated unemployment rate for 15 to 64 year olds in 1902 was 69%1, although the unemployment rate as measured by those claiming unemployment related benefit was as low as 5%. However this raises questions about the accuracy of measuring and reporting conditions and begins to signify the potential numbers living on the poverty line.
In 1900 trade union membership represented only 11% of those in employment and the impact of the Taff Vale2 judgement meant even the Trade Unions were powerless to improve the poor working conditions. Further, the school leaving age in 1900 was 12 and according to the 1901 census 10% (140,000) 10 – 14 year old boys were already working. The benefits paid by the state were in any event below subsistence level and these issues were compounded by poor housing and over crowding, poor diet and health. Together with lack of health care meant large numbers were living in extreme poverty. These conditions had prevailed throughout the 19 Century and there had been no concerted effort to tackle the issue.
However, in the eight years before the First World War, the Liberal Government first under Henry Campbell-Bannerman and then Herbert Asquith embarked upon a sweeping programme of social and economic reform. New Liberalism advocated social reform, financed by higher taxation on the wealthy. Surveys concerning the poor by individuals such as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in York3 had revealed the extent of poverty and brought the problem to public attention.
This could explain the burst of activity by the Liberal Government. In their studies they distinguished between families suffering from primary and secondary poverty. Such studies provided a wealth of statistical data on wages, hours of work, nutritional needs, food consumed, health and housing. Booth and Rowntree published a book4 illustrating the failings of the capitalist system and argued that new measures were needed to overcome the problems of unemployment, old age and ill health. Their findings highlight the reasons for Liberal reforms being made.
Historians such as S. Reed Brett and Murray believe that the Liberal reforms of 1906 onwards were significant. They claim that by moving towards the State intervening in people’s lives and changing attitudes they laid the foundations of the welfare state today. One view is that Lloyd George’s reforms were the first real step to changing society’s attitude to helping the vulnerable and poor. They convinced people that the government’s role should be to help the poor and needy. This made it possible for later governments to bring in welfare reforms such as the National Health Service (in 1948). Murray illustrates this view in his work: ‘The social reforms of the pre-war Liberal government had no opportunity to make a major dent in the extent of poverty before the Great War, but there is some evidence to suggest that they began to make a difference in the long term.’ (Murray, 1999)
The Liberal reforms can also be considered in very different terms. Some contempories believed that the Liberals were only interested in Britain’s efficiency as a country. It can be argued that the Liberal government brought in their welfare reforms because they were afraid that a sick and badly educated workforce would leave Britain lagging behind other countries like Germany. ‘If Britain was to compete and maintain its position as a world power, then it had to be run efficiently. This theory supported the belief that healthy, well-educated workforce was essential.’ (Murphy, 2000)
Commentators are also of the view that political pressures from the left induced fear in the Liberal Administration, which ultimately forced or encouraged the government to embark on social reform. These conflicting interpretations will be reviewed in more detail when considering the effectiveness of the reforms
The extreme poverty identified in the research conducted by Booth and Rowntree and the poor health levels of those conscripted for the Boer War5, proved to be a catalyst for the actions taken to improve health, education and the general welfare of the public. It is clear that many historians and commentators have conflicting views concerning the Liberal Administration and question the motives for reform.
However, there is no doubt that the Liberals introduced a series of important measures. The social reforms to benefit the lowest classes were centred on three areas, children, elderly and poverty resulting from unemployment and sickness. The Liberal Administration was aware of how controversial such reforms were and started with attempts to improve conditions for working class children. Such children were the most vulnerable section of society, but also could not be held to blame for their predicament. Even so there was still opposition as some believed that parents were responsible for children and that government intervention would only undermine individual freedom and responsibility. Despite such beliefs there was a common consensus that the poverty experienced by the poorest working class children was a national disgrace and a range of measures were introduced.
In 1906 the government introduced the Education (School Meals) Act, which resulted from the work of the Labour MP William Beverage. This gave local councils the power to provide free school meals for the poorest families. In many ways this was a great success. On the other hand, the Act allowed local authorities to provide meals, but it did not make it a mandatory requirement.
In 1907 the Liberals, established compulsory medical inspections. This was owed to civil servant Sir Robert Morant. The checks were free, but in some areas they were carried out more thoroughly than others. Further, despite the introduction of the inspections, they were not a solution for all as the treatment was not free. Therefore the success of such inspections is questionable.
This is illustrated by Murray; ‘Both measures gradually had a major impact despite their opponents. Although the 1906 Act was at first permissive (Local Education Authorities were not compelled to supply school meals), by 1914 over 14 million meals per annum were being provide for 158,000 children. In a similar way, the 1907 Act did not compel local authorities to set up clinics, but by 1914 most were proving some medical treatment for children.’ (Murray, 1999)
Later, in 1908 the government introduced the Children and Young Persons Act, due to the influence of pressure groups such as the NSPCC6. Children became protected persons, which meant that parents who ill-treated or neglected their children could now be prosecuted. The Act banned the sale of alcohol and tobacco to children and prohibited them from working in dangerous trades like scrap metal. Also, children who broke the law were now dealt with in specialist juvenile courts and prisons. These were clearly important measures to improve the welfare of children and help tackle child poverty. It can be said that these reforms were the Liberal’s principal achievement during their first tenure in office.
The Liberals were fully aware that for many people the main cause of poverty was old age. In response to this they introduced Old Age Pensions in 1908. It was highly controversial because of the expected cost. It was also debatable because some people thought that old people were in poverty because they had wasted their money throughout their lives.
Overall, Old Age Pensions were very well received and had support from most of the public. To qualify, people had to be over the age of 70. They also had to earn less than ï¿½31 per year and have lived in Britain for 20 years. The number of old people who depended on charity or the Poor Law dropped dramatically as a result of this reform. Pugh clarifies this: ‘The scheme was implemented in ways calculated to reassure the beneficiaries, that it promoted the independence of the elderly, that it reached more people than is usually thought, and that it helped to modify popular attitudes towards the state.’ (Martin Pugh 2000) However, the pension act was still a very controversial measure mainly due to the sectors of society excluded by the Act and the retention of the concept ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals.
With regard to the unemployed Booth and Rowntree’s investigations revealed that inadequate wages were another major cause of poverty and minimum wage legislation was identified as a radical step. The Liberals felt they had no option other than to address the problem and as a result passed the 1909 Trade Boards Act and the 1912 Mines Act. Although they were limited in scope and effect, the measures marked a shift away from the 19th century laissez faire attitude that the government should not intervene in the setting of wages.
Some of the most far-reaching reforms introduced by the Liberals concerned working people. Throughout the early 1900s there were a range of different measures undertaken by local authorities to help the sick and unemployed. The government supported many. However, by 1911 the Liberals were convinced that some kind of government-controlled national system was needed.
As a result they created National Insurance in 1911. The National Insurance Act was in two parts. The 1st part dealt with unemployment, the second with health. Workers earning under ï¿½160 per year had to join the scheme. They paid 4d per week from their own wages into an insurance scheme. The employer added a further 2d and the government added 3d on top of that. In return for their contributions workers got sick pay of 10 shillings a week for 6 months and unemployment pay of 7 shillings a week for up to 15 weeks.
As with the other Liberal measures, when the scheme was introduced there was a lot of opposition suggesting its radical nature. Many workers resented the money being taken from their wages and many employers resented the amount of money it cost them. This was a regressive measure. The policy could have been more radical and progressive by linking the sums payable in National Insurance to wages as opposed to one amount for all workers. However, this was arguably the most important of all welfare reforms. By 1913, 13 million workers were insured in the scheme and a very important safety net had been established. It marked a break with the past in establishing the principle that providing help for the unemployed was a national not a local responsibility. ‘It was clear that the principle of “individual liberty” was now being challenged by a stronger emphasis on collective welfare rights.’ (www.NationalArchives.gov.uk)
Pearce and Stewart highlight this: ‘Although the Liberal government failed to make a popular impact at the time, a number of measures had particular significance because they showed that the government were prepared to intervene far more than had been the case in the past.’ This exemplifies a radical attempt to improve poverty: ‘The effect of these social reforms meant a significant increase in government intervention. The state had now assumed an unprecedented degree of responsibility for individuals in the lower class of society.’ (Mike Byrne, 2005)
The main criticisms of the Liberal’s reforms were the attitude towards welfare was generally too cautious. It can be argued that the Liberals reforms were little more than a response to economic and political circumstances. There were large elements of compromise and Victorian moral attitudes were still featuring in the reforms. Whilst it is accepted that, as a whole, the welfare package introduced by the Liberals helped to some extent alleviate poverty, it is also clear that many people continued to slip through the net and that the Liberals measures were very limited in scope and were capable of further extensions.
For example the 1909 pensions excluded old people under the age of 70 and did not cover criminals, people continually failing to find work and drunkards. Workers outside the industries covered in the Labour Exchange Act and Miners Minimum Wage Act did not qualify to receive a minimum wage. Only c.13 million out of a total population of c.45 million were included in the National Insurance Scheme.
‘The National Insurance 1911 act pension coverage was not universal and was aimed mainly at lower paid and manual workers. It did not provide support for dependants.’ (www.National Statistics.gov.uk) Further more Free medical care was available to only a wage earner, not the wife or children. To tackle poverty more effectively the reforms could have been universal without deliberately excluding thousands of people. This is expounded by Watts: ‘Changes were often modest in scope and there was a number of areas which remained unreformed.’ (Watts, 1995)
Most of the Liberal reforms depended upon local government and local services to deliver them. While this had the effect of removing the stigma of the Poor Law, it also depended upon the priorities of the local authorities. The provision of school medical services, for example, was made possible by central government but its implementation was patchy as it relied on local authorities, many having differing priorities. In effect this meant there was no coherent strategy or mechanism to implement the much-needed reform, which accordingly failed to achieve the desired outcome.
The range of reforms introduced by the Liberals was impressive, but it was not the result of a preconceived programme. Historians often see the reforms as individual solutions to particular social problems, not as a wider radical movement. If they were to have come to power, with a formal programme for poverty relief the reforms may have been more radical and affected a wider section of society.
The Government as a whole did not seem to be very committed to welfare reforms, apart from Lloyd George and Churchill. It is argued that the reforms were Lloyd George and Churchill’s response to what they saw as the challenge from the left. By stealing Labours thunder, they hoped to capture more working class votes. Watts illustrates this: ‘Lloyd George and Churchill revealed a certain skill in adapting Liberalism to the challenge of the “condition of the people” question. In so doing, they retained some middle-class support and made a bid for the loyalty of the working classes.’ (Watts, 1995) By ensuring that reforms were as moderate as possible, they hoped to retain middle-class support. In other words, if the reforms are seen in terms of party political advantage, far from being radical, the reforms can be described as a conservative response to the radical threat from the left.
When comparing the Liberal actions in light of later developments the reforms were not wholly radical and a great deal of key legislation was left undone. ‘The legislation was hardly revolutionary. The state pension was free but not universal. Only around half a million of the oldest, poorest, and most sober elderly people obtained a pension, which was less than a bare subsistence income.’ (Tanner, 1900)
When the Liberals came to power they had no preconceived strategic plan to tackle poverty and indeed ‘right up to the eve of the 1906 General Election Campbell-Bannerman strove to avoid committing the Party to any measures to deal with unemployment, or even old age pensions’. (Hay 1975) Policies to tackle social problems once they came to power were introduced piece meal, in response to economic and political circumstances rather than a coherent reform package. The reforms were very limited, confused and didn’t always favour the poor. Thus, they fell short of a full-scale attack on poverty. Clarke comments on the Education and Licensing Bills, which had to be scrapped as a result of opposition in the House of Lords. Pearce and Stuart went further stating ‘many national disaster areas remained untouched – the problem of slum housing for example was not tackled’. (Pearce and Stewart, 1992)
However, many of the Liberal reforms introduced provided the foundations for a Welfare State and paved the way for subsequent social reform. There was a fundamental shift in social attitudes to poverty and welfare as they convinced people that governments should help the poor and needy. This was a significant achievement for the Liberal Administration, which should not be underestimated. The policies introduced were also successful in helping to alleviate poverty. The measures to introduce medical inspections and school meals argues Murray made a significant impact ‘by 1914 over 14 million meals per annum were being provided for 158,000 children … the 1907 Act did not compel Local Authorities to set up clinics but by 1914 most were providing medical treatment for children’. Murray concludes ‘the social reforms of the pre-war Liberal government had no opportunity to make a major dent in the extreme poverty before the Great War, but there is some evidence to suggest they began to make a difference in the longer term.’ (Murray, 1999)
In conclusion, the nature and success of the Liberal reforms has been the subject of keen historical debate and almost unparalleled scrutiny, resulting in many conflicting views. It cannot be denied there was scope for more radical reform. However, when taking in to account the contemporary, social values and norms, political climate, and the argument of the state versus individual responsibility this was a bold attempt by the Liberal Administration to introduce radical reform. Such reforms helped to alleviate poverty and paved the way for future reforms, even though the Governments motivation may at times have been based upon expediency and was not always entirely principled or purist.
1 This and the following statistics were taken from the Natioanl statistics website.
2 The Taff Vale judgement prevented Unions from picketing and any union could be liable to pay unlimited damages for losses caused by a strike.
3 Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, undertook major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty in British cities. They discovered that up to 30% of the population of the cities were living in or below poverty levels and the conditions were such that people could not pull themselves out of poverty by their own actions alone. Booth and Rowntree both identified the main causes of poverty as being illness, unemployment and old age.
4 Charles Booth published, Life and Labour of People in London in 1889 and Seeboh Rowntree published, Poverty A study of Town Life in 1901.
5 The Boer War was an attempt by the British to re-impose its control over Southern Africa, and when Britain put pressure on the Boers they had little option other than to fight. The British public expected the war to be over in a few weeks as the Boers were inexperienced and badly equipped. However the defeat of 50,000 Boers took 450,00 British troops and before the end, it cost 22,000 lives and well over ï¿½200,000,000 of money.
6 The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
From George III to George VI – A brief history of Britain from 1760 to 1952 (S. Reed Brett)
An illustrated history of modern Britain 1783 – 1964 (Denis Richards and J.W. Hunt)
The origins of the Liberal Welfare reforms 1906-1914 (J.R Hay)
Heinemann Advanced History: Poverty and Public Health 1815-1948 (Rosemary Rees)
Access to History: Britain 1895-1918 (Mike Byrne)
Life and Labour of People in London (Charles Booth 1889)
Poverty – A study of town life (Seebohm Rowntree 1901)