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What success has liberalism sought to emancipate individuals Essay

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Liberalism has always fought for the rights of the individual as it was one of the founding principles of the liberal ideology according to John Locke in the 17th century. As well as the rights of the individual, John Locke also saw freedom and toleration as two other key components of liberalism. This question demands, however, an examination of the success of liberal policies towards the emancipation of the individual. During the course of this essay one will examine how liberalism has freed the individual during the 19th Century under Gladstone and during the liberal reforms of 1906-1912.

Finally one will conclude that in concordance with R. Rurup that, “Liberalism is regarded as the truest protagonist of emancipation.” Reforms enacted by liberal governments, often did provide huge improvements in both living standards and education however, they did not always fully emancipate the individual.[1: R. Rurup, Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, (1975) 20 (1): p. 59]

First and foremost, one must look at the great liberal reforms of the 19th Century, enacted during both the first and second ministry of William Gladstone.

Vincent, claims that, such reforms that, “Maximised individuality,” were, “genuinely liberal.” The first reform that most clearly emancipates the individual during Gladstone’s premiership was the Elementary Education Act of 1870. This as Heywood argues was seen as a way out in the 19th Century form the, “Spread of slums, poverty, ignorance and disease.” The act established the English elementary schooling system, as children up to the age of 12 were made to attend primary school. It created a codified curriculum with six ‘standards’ or ages 5-12. Strict punishments were laid upon parents who refused to send their children to school. Whilst, this bill created the provision of elementary education in the United Kingdom, it also led to many problems as the new compulsory schools were not free.

A means tested scheme applied to the poorest who could not afford to send their children to school, but for many it put them in a very difficult financial position. Vincent, therefore, criticises the Elementary Education Act by deeming it, “Gladstone’s empirical socialism.” The act, however, was a success as by 1880 4000 school were taken over by school boards and nearly 2.3 million children were enrolled in compulsory education up to the age of 12. One can say therefore, despite the criticisms by Vincent, that the Elementary Education Act did successfully emancipate the individual as it lead to higher overall wages as workers were more skilled, for example they could read and take measurements, and it successfully started the primary schooling system in the United Kingdom. [2: Vincent A, A Modern Political Ideologies, (Blackwell) 1992 pg. 34][3: Vincent A, Political Ideologies, 1992 pg. 34][4: Heywood A, Political Ideologies an Introduction, (Palgrave Macmillan) 2007 pg. 56 ][5: Vincent A, Political Ideologies, 1992 pg. 35]

Secondly, Gladstone’s ministry continued to emancipate the individual by expanding the franchise in the United Kingdom. This bill was the third reform act in the 19th Century and continued to increase the franchise by allowing anyone who had to pay rent of 10 pounds and above to vote as well as anyone who owned land with the value of 10 pounds and above. This is equivalent to £7,300 in 2013 using the retail pricing index. This was a huge leap forward as Goodwin describes the bill as, “Progress to a better society,” The bill nearly doubled the franchise in England from 2,300,000 in 1880 voters to 4,100,000 voters in 1885 and did double the franchise in the whole country from 3,000,000 voters in 1880 to 6,160,000 voters in 1892.

Male suffrage varied throughout the kingdom, however, in England and Wales, 2 in 3 adult males had the vote; in Scotland, 3 in 5 did; and in Ireland, the figure was only 1 in 2. Whilst the bill was a long way off from universal suffrage and did not apply to women at all, the bill did seek to emancipate those land-owners and those who rented who were not franchised in previous voting reform legislation. Therefore, whilst this piece of legislation did not meet the liberal ideals of equality according to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, due to its exclusion of women, it did enfranchise and emancipate a large proportion of the male population from prejudice in the voting system of the United Kingdom.[6: Goodwin B, Using Political Ideas, (John Wiley & Sons) 2007 pg.53][7: British Electoral Facts 1832-1987, compiled and edited by F.W.S. Craig ]

Thirdly, one will look at the ‘liberal reforms’ of the early twentieth century. The liberal reforms are the best example of the split in liberal thinking from classical liberalism to modern liberalism. They, “shifted their outlook from a _laissez-faire_ system to a more collectivist approach,” Modern Liberalism was started in the early twentieth century by leaders such as Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Heywood claims that inception of the reforms was spawned from the belief that, “the state should help people help themselves.” One will first look at how the liberal reforms emancipated the workers of the early 20th Century.

The Labour Exchanges Act of 1909, created state run labour exchanges with the specific role of placing people in work who were affected by the seasonal demand of shipping and other seasonally affected trade, especially in winter. Whilst, opposed by labour unions as they feared that the labour exchanges would reduce the effectiveness of collective bargaining for fair wages, the labour exchanges by 1913 were putting 3,000 people a day into work. Whilst successful in emancipating some workers from the threat of seasonal unemployment the labour exchanges did have a small impact as only 25% of the working population in the United Kingdom found employment though them. [8: Vincent Emy, H Liberals, radicals, and social politics, 1892-1914 p. 14][9: Heywood A, Political Ideologies, 2007 pg. 60][10: Watts, D Whigs, Radicals, and Liberals, 1815-1914, p.89][11: Watts, D Whigs, Radicals, and Liberals, 1815-1914, p.89]

Lastly, within the liberal reforms one must look at the National Health Insurance Act of 1911, which truly emancipated members of the working class, as they would have a ‘safety net’ if they fell ill. Although, Goodwin views this reform as an, “interference with individual freedom,” but does argue that Hobhouse, having reiterated some of T. H. Green’s views, claims that this extension of public control is justified on, “Humane grounds.” Goodwin does also explain that any, “loss of independence,” should be counted against the, “benefits offered by the welfare measure.” The National Insurance Act of 1911, offered many benefits and emancipated every worker in the United Kingdom who earned less that £160 a year. The scheme created a compulsory government-run insurance plan against unemployment through illness. This emancipated workers from the fear of becoming destitute though illness. All workers paid four pence a week to the scheme, the employer paid three pence and the government paid two pence.

Whilst there was criticism of the act, especially from the conservative part, as they argued that it was not the government’s duty to be involved in such a scheme, the bill was passed and helped millions of workers. This can be seen as the most influential bill that any liberal government has passed during the liberal reforms between 1906 and 1912 as it both laid the foundations for the ‘Welfare State’ but it also emancipated millions of workers from poverty as envisaged in _Life and Labour of the People_ by Rowntree and Booth, two influential liberal reformers.

In conclusion, moreover, both the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 and the National Insurance Act of 1911 were ultimately justified as they were seen to be based on, “humane grounds,” and they were hugely successful at emancipating the working classes of the United Kingdom from, what Heywood describes as the, “Spread of slums, poverty, ignorance and disease” which was driving factor for all of the liberal reforms in the 46 year period between 1870 and 1918.[12: Goodwin B, Using Political Ideas,2007 pg.54][13: Goodwin B, Using Political Ideas,2007 pg.49][14: Goodwin B, Using Political Ideas,2007 pg.50][15: Goodwin B, Using Political Ideas,2007 pg.50][16: Goodwin B, Using Political Ideas,2007 pg.49 ][17: Heywood A, Political Ideologies, 2007 pg. 56]

Therefore, to conclude, during the half century of liberal governments, one did see a huge improvement of both living standards and education as well as the partial emancipation of the individual. During Gladstone’s first and second ministry, one saw the electorate nearly doubled, leading to huge emancipation of those who, never before could vote. Gladstone’s government also made education mandatory for those under the age of 10, therefore emancipating children from what Heywood calls, “slums, poverty, ignorance and disease.”

Whereas, during the liberal government, headed by Herbert Asquith, between 1906 and 1918, the liberal government had discernibly more success in emancipating the individual as it provided both the Labour Exchanges in 1909 as well as National Insurance for those who were too sick to work. Whilst these successes in emancipating the individual were important, they were also marred by the fact that none of these reforms provided universal suffrage, a key principle of emancipation. Therefore, whilst the liberals were for the most part successful in emancipating the individual in the years between 1870 and 1918, their achievements were hampered by the fact that they failed to provide universal suffrage and consequently, one can conclude that the liberals emancipated the individual with partial success during their period of governance. [18: Heywood A, Political Ideologies, 2007 pg. 56]


R. Rurup, _Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook_, (1975) 20 (1)

Vincent A, A _Modern Political Ideologies,_ (Blackwell) 1992

Heywood A, _Political Ideologies an Introduction,_ (Palgrave Macmillan) 2007

Goodwin B, _Using Political Ideas,_ (John Wiley & Sons) 2007

Craig F.W.S, _British Electoral Facts 1832-1987_, (Politico’s Publishing) 1989

Vincent-Emy, H _Liberals, radicals, and social politics, 1892-1914_ (Cambridge University Press) 2008

Watts, D _Whigs, Radicals, and Liberals, 1815-1914_ (Hodder Education) 2002

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