With what success did the Liberal Governments attempt to improve the quality of life of the working?The 1906 election, and subsequent landslide victory for the Liberals, was the first step toward the introduction of a welfare state.
The Conservatives who were in power up to 1906 had basically ignored the concept of social reform; this had led to them losing the worker’s vote and had also led to a decline in the standards of living for the working class. The New Liberals argued for more government intervention to help impoverished society and therefore created the first movements of a social reform. However, the new legislation was only a mediocre success in improving the quality of life for working class people.”New Liberalism”, differing slightly to Gladstonian Liberalism, was essentially state intervention in order to reduce poverty and therefore improve living and working conditions for the working classes. Up until the turn of the century, it was believed that poverty was self-inflicted, and extremely easy to eradicate if the people concerned just tried a little harder. However by the 1906 election, studies on poverty had been completed by Booth and Rowntree, and ideas on the origins of poverty were beginning to change. These studies provided evidence to suggest that no matter how hard certain people tried, they could not lift themselves out of poverty, and needed assistance in the form of state benefits and legislations.
As New Liberalism involved more government intervention, people were wary of it as it was a new concept, and the previous Conservative governments had been unconcerned with most aspects of helping the people. At this time people were scared of change, and many did not understand the benefits of schemes like the National Insurance Act of 1911, where there wasn’t a guaranteed payoff and people did not understand why, or to whom, they were paying money. However, as the idea of “deserving” poor and “undeserving” poor still existed even with New Liberalism, not all groups of people received aid.
Therefore the new legislation and reforms were not quite as successful as they could have been.This was partly because the Liberals were more concerned with their political status than increasing legislation for the good of the people. The Liberals were in fear of a potential threat from the newly-formed Labour Party, who relied on votes from the working-class population. The Liberals were also reliant upon the support of the Labour party in order to gain an absolute majority in parliament. Therefore, it can be argued that their motives behind the social reforms were primarily to conserve the majority they held – the only way they could do this was by helping the working class. This is demonstrated in the 1931 Trade Union Act – this reform gave unions quite a lot of power and was only passed by the Liberals because Labour held a majority of seats. As legislation was not all-encompassing – the “deserving poor” were workers, pensioners and children – and therefore people who couldn’t find work received no benefits, an entirely successful social reform would never be possible.
Since the end of the Boer War the economy had been growing quite slowly. In order to combat this, the Liberals realised that unemployment rates must be lowered – as a significant sector of the working class population were unemployed due to ill health, this meant introducing health benefits and payments. The concept of national efficiency was also an important factor in the introduction of welfare reforms – the slow growing economy meant that Britain was in danger of losing its position as a major world power. Linked to this concept was Social Darwinism, which encouraged the belief that world races that were physically and mentally stronger than others would dominate world politics. In order to maintain these concepts, it was believed that a strong, healthy and educated workforce was essential. Without health and education benefits this was unlikely.The population was also considered generally unfit.
During conscription for the Boer War, it was found that in inner city areas, many potential recruits were not physically healthy enough to fight. This spurred on a drive for welfare reform by the government, but again, the motive behind this was primarily to strengthen Britain’s fighting forces should the need arise, rather than to improve the standards of living for the working class regardless of the need for healthy conscripts.It can be said that the Liberal Welfare Reforms were generally ineffective in improving the quality of life for many people – by 1911 employment figures were virtually indifferent to those in 1906 and the reforms had made little impact on this section of the deserving poor. Therefore at this point the welfare reforms had had limited success.
The main problem was the vagueness of the improvement attempts. The 1906 School Meals Act was only a fraction as successful as it could have been due to the non-compulsory enforcement; many education authorities did not adopt the idea of free school meals as it was their choice. Similarly, the 1907 Notification of Births Act made medical inspections compulsory but treatment was optional. This reform could have improved children’s health a lot more than it did if treatment had have been made compulsory too.To conclude, only some sections of the working class were helped by the Liberal Welfare Reforms, and the help received was only moderate. But as the Liberals still believed in the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor”, the welfare reforms would never be as successful as they had the potential to be.
However, the reforms had provided the path toward the introduction of a welfare state, by taking British society “into an entirely new field of activity, and although by no means solving the problem of the condition of the people, they settled the lines upon which the eventual solution would be found.” (B Gilbert, The Evolution of National Insurance in Great Britain)