Why In 1906 Did The Liberal Government Embark Upon An Extensive Program Of Social Reform

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The reason why the Liberal government embarked upon an extensive program of social reform is because of two main reasons. The first, is because of genuine concern due to strong evidence of recent studies and other reasons. Furthermore because of political reasons, especially pressure from the newly formed Labour party and Trade Unions.

Firstly the government was unable to ignore the problem of poverty and had to put social reforms in place to cut down on poverty and the problems with which it bought. There was significant evidence from Charles Booth and Seebolm Rowntree into poverty in London and York. Booth was responsible for the first scientific estimate of poverty and the development of survey methods in social investigation. As a wealthy ship owner, who moved to offices in London, he refused to accept statistics that only 25% of the working population lived in poverty. From 1886 to 1903 he investigated into the life and labour of London’s poor. He found that on the basis of 4000 people that 30.7% lived below the poverty line, so were unable to buy a reasonable amount of food, have shelter or good clothing. Also he found that 85% of those living in poverty were because of problems relating to employment: unemployment, short-time working or low pay. The real significance of this evidence was that the majority of these people living in poverty were down to the lack of social reforms to create more jobs, with higher pay. Furthermore Seebolm Rowntree built on Charles Booth’s work and investigated poverty in York, hoping to add more precision to Booth’s poverty line. He found 28% of the population of York were living in poverty. Not only this, but with calculating that for a family of five to simply exist was 21s 8d, he used this to workout a poverty line and thus the poverty cycle. From this he then split poverty into two main sections. Primary poverty in which people could not obtain even the basic necessities of life, no matter how well they organised and managed their budgets, they were living on the edge. The second category of poverty was secondary poverty in which people could obtain the basic necessities of life provided there are no extra costs in their budget. Adding to these two studies, it was estimated that in 1904, distribution of income in the UK was £1,710,000,000 among a population of 43 million and that only £880 million of this would go to a population of 38 million poor people, according to L.G Chiozza Money, Riches and Poverty (1905). These studies made the middle class aware of the growing problem of poverty not just in London but throughout the country, and overall it was estimated that one third of the country was dangerously deprived. Hence this was a considerable reason why the Liberal government took into account major reform.

A main problem with poverty is that it brings disease and physical weakness on the working class. As the working class took up a high percentage of the population this meant that there was a large percentage of disable working class people. These fears were heightened by the studies into poverty by Rowntree and Booth. This lead to another general concern of the Liberal government, that of nation efficiency. Many people believed that the British economy and its work force were not working at its peak and felt that Britain would fall be hide its competitors. To add to this the strength of the British army had been questioned after the Boer War, where it took 3 years for the apparently crack British army to overcome ill-quipped Boer farmers. A reason for this was due to the fact that 1 in 3 men were unfit for service and this can be seen as a direct result of almost a third of the population living in terrible conditions. Not only this but Britain was lacking be hide in production levels and countries such as America and Germany were significantly out producing Britain in industry production levels. To add to this there was a growth of highly mobile armies and their navies produced by France, Germany and Russia. This made Great Britain look very vulnerable. This lack of national efficiency was pounced upon by the press who severely criticised the system of parliamentary government, saying it seemed to be run by a bunch of amateurs only interested in party political squabbles. They also heavily criticised the perceived amateurism of army officers and the inadequate training of their men. This forced Liberal government to embark upon a programme of social reform to cut poverty and thus improve national efficiency. The second problem that poverty brings is that the people in poverty have no freedom, and this can be a reason why there was such a low national efficiency. If the government isn’t allowing you freedom then why should you go fight for your country? Even if this is the only way to get work, which in many cases it would have been, then there would be no passion, no heart when fighting out on the front line. If they are constantly constrained by poverty and the constant rejection by the government there will be no nationalism and so may be the reason for the lull in national efficiency. Poverty was seen as an obstacle to basic freedom, and that not being free to enjoy life is not giving someone his or her rights.

It was not only poverty that affected the social reforms from 1906-11. The Liberal government came under immense pressure, especially from the rise of the newly formed Labour party. The lib-lab pact, which was initially used to defeat the conservatives in as many constituencies as possible, had in fact allowed Labour to gain 29 labour MPs in Parliament. As Lloyd George explains in Source 2, of our handouts, “We have a great Labour Party sprung up. Unless we can prove, as I think we can, that there is no necessity for a separate party in order to press forward the legitimate claims of labour, then you will find the same thing will happen in England that has happened in Belgium and Germany- that the Liberal party will be practically wiped out”. Here we can see that the rise of the Labour party is a large threat to the Liberal party and could possibly wipe them out, unless the Liberals can act. In which they must do through social reforms, which is a reason why they embarked upon an extensive program of social reform.

Not only is there pressure being put on the Liberal government from an opposite party but pressure is also being stacked on by the Trade Unions. Trade Unions had come to be seen as a responsible integral part of the country’s political life. At the start of the 19th century the Trade Union organisation had become very powerful, and also very rich, as they received subscriptions from members, and they were seen as the organisation that was representing the working class. The Liberals were very wise in taking advice from the Trade Unionists and this would of added to the reason why the Liberals bought about so much reform, especially to working class and thus poverty. The reason why the Trade Unionists were so powerful was because of the high percentage of working class people within the population and the amount of money they possessed through subscriptions from the member. This is why the working class population were very important. With the ability to vote and a strong organisation such as the Trade Unionists to get across ideas to the government it meant that the Liberals came under a lot of pressure to have an extensive program of social reform.

It was not only political pressure from outside the party that cause social reform. Changes from within the party also lead to social reform. New Liberalism, which was bought about by T.H Green, L.T Hobhouse and J.A Hobson, put the Liberals in a new direction. New Liberalism was the idea that the British Empire should be seen as an economic asset that needed to be properly managed and developed both politically and economically. As L.T Hobhouse described it as “The ‘right to work’ and the right to a ‘living wage’, are just as valid as the rights of person or and property”, (as seen in Source 1 of the handout). New Liberalism included more intervention and in order to prove to the voters that new Liberalism was able to fight and stand up against Labour, there must have been social reform. In order to deal with this pressure from within the party and to steer new Liberalism in the right direction there must be a strong leader at the top with determined advisors below. In 1908 Sir Henry Campbell resigned through ill health and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Asquith became Prime Minster. Below him he posted Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Winston Churchill became President of the Board of Trade. As Winston Churchill was an ex-conservation he became determined to prove his Liberal credentials. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill soon became leading exponents of New Liberalism. This new change at the top lead to strong ideas being carried out on new liberalism and of course one of these views was increased intervention by the government, and the way that this came about was through social reforms.

In conclusion the new awareness of poverty within the country from the studies of Charles Booth and Seebolm Rowntree lead to the Liberal Government being forced into making social reform. The affects of making social reforms on poverty, is that the country as a whole will become healthier, this will in turn lead to stronger soldiers and workers leading to a higher national efficiency cancelling out many of the problems that put great pressure on the Liberal government for reform. Not only this but with the rise of Labour, helped by the lib-lab pact meant unless the Liberal party changed its ideas and make some manager reforms then it could be completely “wiped out”. With this and the high percentage of working class people supporting the large and powerful Trade Unions, which wanted changed it meant that the Liberal Government could not resist change. The changes within the party, especially the towards the top with Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, who, Churchill especially, was keen to prove his Liberal credentials it was almost certain for Liberals to bring about change. With all these reasons taken into account this is why the Liberal government embarked upon an extensive program of social reform.

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