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The Liberal Reforms

After 20 years under conservative rule, Britain would wake up to a liberal landslide victory in 1906, a significant event in British history which would bring in a new philosophy of politics that would challenge the traditional Victorian laissez faire values to introduce what many historians have universally known to be the birth of the welfare state, where it was the duty of the state to support the ill, the elderly and the young. But why did the liberals bring in the series of reforms?



Social Reformation



Amongst many things, the liberal reforms were the product of 4 main factors



§ The Boer War – or more precisely the second Boer war – In 1875 Britain engaged in the scramble for Africa, which led to a series of wars where the people opposed the foreign invasion. The second Boer war drove many volunteers to enrol towards the war effort, however 2/3rd’s of the men were turned down on medical grounds – they were deemed to unfit to fight at all. As a result, the committee of physical deterioration was established to combat national degradation.



§ With high industrial production and exports, and the largest empire, Britain seemed to be the most powerful nation in the world. The early 1900s up until the war was known as the golden age, but economically Germany, Japan, and the USA were becoming major competitors. These countries put more money into advancements in chemical, pharmaceutical and electrical industries



§ Social Reformer’s such as Seebohm Rowntree, a wealthy industrialist in York who conducted a two year study into poverty. His findings were published in his book poverty, a study of town life in 1901. He found that 28% of people in some point of their lives fell below the poverty line. Other reformers include Charles Booth, a businessman who conducted a similar study into London’s poverty which produced 17 volumes of information in Life and labour of the people of London, 1889, and the Salvation Army, an organisation which worked to help those in poverty in the late 19th century.



§ Men gradually became enfranchised giving more and more people the vote, whereas before the vote was limited to the few autocrats in Britain. Because of this, political party’s had to readjust their policies. The liberals were traditionally a working-class driven party, so their victory was not surprising. Also, the labour representation Committee established in 1900 posed a new political threat against the liberals.



What did the Liberals Bring in?



The liberals tackled three main groups in society; the elderly, the young and the workers.



§ Elderly – For the elderly, one major Act was brought in that would spare many of them going to the workhouse ( an institution brought in by the 1834 Poor Law where people could go if they had no other alternative. It offered housing and employment, but conditions were brutal.) This was the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act. It was enacted in January 1909 and was known as the New Year’s gift to elderly people. It offered 5S a week (or 7S 6D for married couple). This was rolled out to half a million people, but only if you’d been a UK resident for over 20 years, earned under £21.10s per year and passed a character test. It was deliberately set low so many people were encouraged to make their own provisions for retirement. The Act brought about a tax rise in the 1909 peoples budget, which would spark a constitutional crisis. The rich felt they were being robbed, and so refused to pass the bill in the house of Lords.



§ Young – There were several reforms for the young; firstly, the government introduced free school meals in 1906, but this was not compulsory so many councils didn’t enforce it until 1914 when it was made compulsory. Also the nutritional quality of the meals wasn’t great, so the overall success of the act is questionable.



In 1907, the medical inspections in school were introduced, but many thought this gave the school too much power. The last act was the children’s charter, a series of laws that protected children from neglect, banned sales of materials such as cigarettes to those under age and the launch of youth prisons known as borstals.



§ The Workers – in 1909 Labour Exchanges were made, but these did not increase the amount of jobs available in the country, so were relatively ineffective during periods of economic instability. Later on, starting in 1911, the National Insurance Act was brought in, in two parts. Part 1 dealt with health insurance. All men and women in lower-paid manual and clerical jobs earningUnder£160 per year had to join. They then had to pay 4d out of each week’s wages, and each payment would earn them a stamp on their card. The employer added 3d worth of stamps and the government a further 2d. In return, the worker received up to 26 weeks of sick pay at 10 shillings a week from a friendly society. There was also free medical care for the person ensure, but not for their family. The second part introduced unemployment pay – during times of unemployment, a worker would receive seven shillings per week for up to fifteen weeks, in return for a 2½d per week. It was not much money, the government justified by stating it encouraged careful spending and prevented people to “sit back and enjoy” the benefits.


Free Trade



Another thing the liberals wanted to introduce was free trade; taking import taxes off of products shipped from overseas. The conservatives argued this was wrong – the tax levy encouraged national trade ensuring less money was lost to the market overseas. On the other hand, the liberals justified their movement by stating that imposing taxes on our end would reduce the international sales of British goods, which would subsequently harm the economy.



How were the reforms met?



The reforms were controversial and were met with enormous competition. Conservatives opposed the cost and the idea of the ‘nanny state’. Doctors weren’t convinced the health insurance went far enough. Friendly societies and insurance companies did not pay out to widows and workers generally opposed further taxation. The labour party criticised the fact workers had to fund their own benefits. They felt it should have come from taxation of the wealthy to help the poor.



The constitutional Crisis



The wealthy did not agree, surprisingly. When the people’s budget of 1909 was introduced, the House of Lords, mainly composed of Tories, rejected the budget which then led to the constitutional crisis, causing several elections and in the end resulted in the house of lord’s losing some power in the Parliament Act of 1911.

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