My study blog

The Liberal Reforms of 1906 – 1914

Posted by lednum on September 7, 2006

Pressure from reports on poverty

The need for reform

During the late nineteenth century the British government, under the Liberal party, acted according to the principle of laissez faire. Individuals were solely responsible for their own lives and welfare. The government did not accept responsibility for the poverty and hardship that existed among its citizens. A popular point of view at the time was that poverty was caused by idleness, drunkenness and other such moral weaknesses on the part of the working classes. The poor were seen by the wealthy as an unfortunate but inevitable part of society.

There were no old age pensions, unemployment benefits or family allowances. If the main wage-earner died or could not work, a whole family could be plunged into terrible poverty. The state would not interfere.

During this period, the accepted role of the government was very limited. It was simply expected to:

  • maintain law and order
  • protect the country from invasion

Changing attitudes

At the dawn of the 20th century two social surveys were published that not only shocked the British public but changed popular opinion on the causes of poverty. They helped pave the way for a whole range of government-led welfare reforms.

Independently of each other, two wealthy businessmen, Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, sponsored major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty in British cities. Their findings agreed on two key points:

  • up to 30% of the population of the cities were living in or below poverty levels
  • 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 age – both the very young and the old were at risk of poverty

It began to be recognised that the government had a role to play. To do this, political and social reforms were necessary.
Boothe and rowntree did surveys in London and York on poverty

-Put presure to make the government react

-Dropped Laisez faire, replaced with state intervention policy.

-Mayhew and Dickens very influential

New Liberalism

Why social reforms happened

Historians have identified various factors and motives for the reforms being passed.

National efficiency

Fears that Britain was in decline as a world power led to the idea that Britain had to improve its national efficiency by taking steps to improve the quality of the workforce. If Britain was to compete and maintain its position as a world power, then it had to be run efficiently with a strong, healthy and well-educated workforce.

The Boer War (1899 – 1902)

During the war, the British army experienced great difficulty in finding fit young men to recruit as soldiers. One in three potential recruits was refused on medical grounds. This led to questions being asked about the physical condition of the working class male. Would he be able to perform the tasks expected of him in the workplace and on the battlefield? The Government would have to do something to ensure basic health levels among the population.

Popular socialism

The Labour Party had just been established and it was winning public support for its campaigns for social welfare policies, such as old age pensions and unemployment benefits. The ruling Liberal Party recognised the threat this new party posed to its traditional support in many working class areas. To counter the threat from the socialist and Labour movement, the Liberals realised that they had to instigate social reforms or risk losing political support from the working classes.

A new liberalism

A new type of Liberalism had emerged by 1906, and it was this ‘new liberalism’ which provided the inspiration for the reforms. New Liberals, such as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith, argued that there were circumstances in which it was right for the state to intervene in people’s lives.

The German model

The example of Bismarck’s progressive social legislation in Germany, coupled with her economic and military strength, impressed both Lloyd George and Churchill. Among other measures, the Germans had instigated an early form of sickness insurance for its workers. Lloyd George and Churchill felt inspired to introduce similar style reforms in Britain.

‘Gas and water socialism’

Public works schemes to improve living conditions and public health had been established in the late 19th century, often set up and run by Liberals. These small, local schemes raised the possibility of similar schemes being a success on a national scale.


-Dropped self help

-introdueced stateintervention

-men could vote so politicians worked hard to get their vote

– Were they doing this to help them get elected or because they had genuine concerns about poverty

Political pragmatism

-Liberals and tories had to change their ideas to catch up with labour.

National Security

– Fearful of other countries of having better weapons

-boer war

-Men were rejected as they wer unfit and underweight because of malnutrition and Germany was starting to worry Britain.

National Efficiency

-The britain industrial revolution , 1890

-Japan and germany !910

-Britain was the workshop of the world


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