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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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Democracy in Britain between 1850 and 1900

Posted by lednum on August 30, 2006


Prior to 1832, Britain was an oligarchy


Three national parties to vote for by the early 1900s Labour, conservative and liberals


Education act 1870 (1872 in scotland)


Abolition of property qualification for MPs; 1857 payment for MPs, 1911


Second reform act, 1867

The Reform Act 1867 (also known as the Second Reform Act, and formally titled the Representation of the People Act 1867), 30 & 31 Vict. c. 102, was a piece of British legislation that greatly increased the number of men who could vote in elections in the UK. In its final form, the Reform Act 1867 enfranchised all male householders and abolished compounding (the practice of paying rates to a landlord as part of rent). Due to this act working-class men gained suffrage for the first time in Britain. However, there was little redistribution of seats; and what there was had been intended to help the Conservative Party.

Third reform act, 1884 The 1867 Reform Act had granted the vote to working class males in the towns but not in the counties. William Gladstone and most members of the Liberal Party argued that people living in towns and in rural areas should have equal rights. Lord Salisbury, leader of the Conservative Party, opposed any increase in the number of people who could vote in parliamentary elections. Salisbury’s critics claimed that he feared that this reform would reduce the power of the Tories in rural constituencies.
Representation of the people act, 1918 

The Representation of the People Act 1918 was an Act of Parliament passed to reform the electoral system in the United Kingdom. It is sometimes known as the Fourth Reform Act.

Following the horrors of World War I, millions of returning soldiers were still not entitled to vote. This posed a dilemma for politicians since they could not withhold the vote from the very men who were considered to have fought to preserve British democracy.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage by abolishing practically all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers. However, women were still not politically equal to men (who could vote by age 21); full electoral equality wouldn’t occur until the Representation of the People Act 1928.


The ballot act, 1872 After the passing of the 1867 Reform Act working class males now formed the majority in most borough constituencies. However, employers were still able to use their influence in some constituencies because of the open system of voting. In parliamentary elections people still had to mount a platform and announce their choice of candidate to the officer who then recorded it in the poll book. Employers and local landlords therefore knew how people voted and could punish them if they did not support their preferred candidate. In 1872 William Gladstone removed this intimidation when his government brought in the Ballot Act which introduced a secret system of voting.

Redistribution of seats act, 1885 ( and also in 1867 and 1918)

The Act allowed Britain to advance a step further in gaining equal representation before this Act seats were unfairly distributed leading to harsh and unfair representation. This Act improved the balance of seats.

Each of these Acts allowed Britain to bridge the gap on reaching democracy, the Secret ballot Act minimised bribery and corruption which infiltrated the voting system they however did not wipe the system totally clean until the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act made it presence felt and eradicated both bribery and corruption for the system. The Third reform Act expanded the franchise by 50% but it was simply not a great enough extension to brand Britain democratic. The redistribution of seats Act improved equality in representation but the improvement was not immense. As a whole these Acts before 1900s edged Britain further to democracy but they did not deliver enormous changes, they of course were a vast improvement to the system to the way it stood before 1832, they were to be the last changes to the electoral system for some 30 years.

corrupt and illegal practices act

The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883 (46 & 47 Vict c. 51) was an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom. It was a continuation of policy to make votes free from the intimidation of landowners and politicians.

Despite the Ballot Act 1872, William Gladstone‘s Second Ministry (1880-85) knew that to make voting less corrupt, certain measures were required to eradicate intimidation and bribery. The act meant that the expenses of candidates were published and could be measured against a limit as to how much could be spent on “political campaigns”. It laid down rules for the conduct of parliamentary candidates, including a strict limit on expenses. Poorer men could also become parliamentary candidates and under the Act stiff penalties were imposed on those breaking it such as heavy fines and imprisonment. Although it did not entirely remove corruption from the voting system, it strengthened the Corrupt Practices Act 1854 and was aided by a number of disenfranchised, small boroughs.

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