Attal Shams:What were the core ideologies


What were the core ideologies and purpose of the welfare reforms introduced by Liberal government in the years preceding the WW1 in Britain?

The area under discussion in this essay will be the main philosophies and purposes of the welfare reforms which were introduced by the Liberal Government in Britain in early 20thcentury. It will also be indicating historical preconditions, reasons and main political figures that played an important role in the introduction of social and welfare reforms in the years preceding the First World War. Furthermore, it will also be taking into consideration the aims and principles of welfare reforms. Special attention will be paid to the evaluation of success of the welfare reforms.

According to Fraser (2009.p, 203) the start of twentieth century the vast majority of people believed that they may need different attitude towards managing and dealing with poverty. During the year of 1906 to 1914, immense modification occurred, and government had announced sequence of reforms.

Middle class social pioneers such as Charles Booth and the social campaigner Seebohm Rowntree underlined extraordinary heights of poverty in different parts of England. According to Booth’s research of the social circumstances which was conducted in East London, It became very clear, that almost 8.4 per cent of the population breathing ‘in want’ and some further 22.7 per cent were living in poverty. Fraser (2009, p152). To support Booth’s findings in east London, another study has been made in York by Seebohm Rowntree, where he discovered that 28 per cent of York’s population were living in some degree of poverty such as ‘want or squalor’. Rees (2001, p188). Public concern was aroused by the appearance of all these evidence. Society realised that if York – comparatively small town had such problems, perhaps people in other cities around the country might be in the same state. Therefore, the problem of poverty became national apprehension.

Another factor which pressurised the government at the time was the national efficiency, which was clearly seen during the Boar war of 1899 to 1902. Younger generation volunteered and were ready to fight, but because of their physical fitness they were rejected. In some areas 2 out 3 possible recruits could not pass the elementary army medical inspection. Despite superior training and weaponry, the numbers of unfitted recruits were counted in thousands leading to inability for Britain to win the war (Rees 2001). Soon after the investigation, a committee was set up to inspect the causes of the Boar war failure, which has raised serious worries in society and was an enormous concern for the British government. The research conducted by Booth and Rowntree confirmed the findings of the recruitment board. It became clear to Liberal Government that the British working class was below the line of efficiency, which was making difficult for Britain to compete with other empires. At the same time, the economic growth in neighbouring country Germany and as well as in United States of America made the British Government realised the importance of planned reforms in order to improve the state of the society and to gain an economic power.

According to Rees (2001, p80) apprehension of the emergence of the Labour Party was another huge concern, that Liberal Government had to face. The vast majority of voters in the country were working class, and it was them who demanded for the change. “In 1900 the Trades Union Congress set up the Labour Representative Committee” Rees (2001, p80). The central idea behind this representation was to have a political voice for the working class. Shortly afterwards, in 1906, The Labour Representative Committee was renamed into The Labour Party. The main concern for labour party was to secure the trade union legitimately. They attempted to concentrate on the social improvements. According to Rees (2001) “The Labour Party was calling for abolishment of the Poor Law, helped for the unemployed, old age pensions and free education for all”. The emergence of new political force, which was supporting the working class, certainly was a huge blow to two main political parties of that time, which were Liberal and Conservative Parties.

According to some historians, as well as Rees (2001) the threat for liberal was not to do with political power but there was the possibility of Labour Party embracing more extreme forms of socialist ideology. Furthermore, there was a profound fear that a new fundamental kind of socialism, committed to the demolition of the capitalist system, might stand up if action was not taken to improve conditions for the working class. Introduction of The social reforms were inevitable for Liberals in Britain in order to prevent the swift growth of radical socialism. There is a possibility that they had learned from the experience of European colleagues in Germany, where Chancellor Bismarck had conducted the social reforms in order to stop the growth of extreme socialism. Rees (2001, p81).

David Lloyd George was one of the influential people behind the driving force of the Liberal reforms in early nineteen century, along with Winston Churchill. Probably his personal background played an important role in his understanding of upcoming changes in society. During his childhood, George became familiar with poverty by experiencing deficiency. Being a very talented man, regardless of his family background, he received an opportunity to succeed in political career. “He became the first real outsider to achieve the highest office”. (Fraser 2009, p.185). It was both “leading lights” in new Liberal administration: Lloyd George – chancellor and Winston Churchill the chairman of Board of Trade, who worked together to draft series of welfare reforms.

Taking into consideration that in the beginning of twentieth century the Liberal Government proposed many Acts, some of the Acts played a crucial role in the British society and social policy as whole. David Lloyd George believed that social reforms and state intervention was required in society at the time. Especially children were under the danger of starvation and inability to have free education. “In the slums, they found out that in the schools, 66 per cent of children were unable to keep pace with the curriculum, because they were permanently imperfect in physical development”(National archive). In order to reduce this problem, the government passed the Education Act (provision of meals) in 1906. Furthermore, in 1907 the Government passed the Education Act (administrative provisions) providing medical inspections of school children. At least three inspections were performed while a child was at school. These Acts were intended to challenge the problem of disease due to the poverty. The medical inspections provided schools with an assurance that all diseases will be cured and prevented. It has also enabled schools to provide children living in poverty with good medical help and gave to the Government an insight opportunity to tackle poverty amongst the younger generations. Success of these Educational Acts gave a rise to another Educational Act in 1914, which gave the local authorities the right to improve condition of children suffering from poverty by providing the poorest school children with decent meals.

The Old Age Pensions Act was passed in 1908. In legal terms, this Act replaced assistance from the Poor Law for the people with law income. Pensions were available to men and women aged 70 years and over. Pensions were not paid to those, who were not successful in finding a job, or who were receiving the poor relief, or drunkards (Rees, 2001). This was also a major step in tackling the “laissez-faire” ideology and was a major factor in the establishment of a welfare state in Britain.

According to Rees (2001) in the beginning of 20th century illness of main wage earner was a major cause of poverty in Britain. Liberal Government became concerned with this issue. They introduced National Insurance Act in 1911 in order to ease the problem of poverty. This Act consisted of two parts firstly, part of it was intended to deal with Health Insurance issues and second part was also proposed to deal with insurance against unemployment. According to Rees (2001) between 6 and 7 million people insured themselves against sickness. The scheme applied to all workers who earned less the £160 a year. Free medications and treatment were provided by medical practitioners. There was a stumbling block to this Act, all these free treatments were only available to workers and if any member of their family needed any kind of treatment, the insurance would not cover the costs as their families were not inculcated into this scheme. Insurance against unemployment was meant to deal with workers who were out work. The scheme was applied to a particular group of trades, such as ship builders and vehicle constructors to name a few. Insurance was compulsory. According to Rees (2001) 2.25 million men were insured by the end of 1912. Workers could not claim insurance if they were unemployed due to misdemeanour. The Pension Act, National Insurance Act were established by the beginning of the reforms that lead to Welfare State after Second World War of 1945.

Since the Liberal Government carried out social reforms in late nineteenth and beginning of twentieth centuries, some historians had been separating the reasons for the appearance of such transformations. According to some discussed issues there are some key motives why the Liberals carried out reforms, such as threat of new socialist influence, Labour Representative Committee (L.R.C.) emerging of four groups Fabian Society, Trade Union (FIST), which later became the Labour Party. Research conducted by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, made mentioned that Boer war, national efficiency, desire for new liberalism, Britain’s competitive position in world ranking compared to Germany and United states of America. Another motive for the emergence of those reforms was concern about people’s welfare. However, it can be argued that the motivation behind the liberal government reformers was just a social concern. Perhaps, there was another side of the story. Probably the truth was that the ruling elite Liberals or Conservative Party members saw poverty as a great threat to their own interests. They were concerned with the fact that children were experiencing malnutrition this concern was due to the fact that problem of inability for Britain to have the next generation of good soldiers was worrying. Besides these worries, that soldiers were too sick to defend the empire another issue was unhealthy workers, who were compromising the ability of Britain to remain productive. On the other hand the ruling elite were also frightened by the possibility that hungry working class will try to establish social order. In the later years of Edwardian period tensions between classes was obvious, maintained by the industrial unrest caused by factory workers.

To conclude, certainly regardless of the various reasons behind the reforms, the changes in British society that appeared due to the Acts were introduced by the Liberal Government played a significant role in the development of Britain in later years. Further reforms took place in British society even during and after hard economic situation that Britain was indulged in after First and Second World Wars. Transformation into Welfare state after Second World War was possible only because there was a strong base foundation created by Liberal Government in the beginning of the twentieth century. All the positives and imperfections of reforms that were carried out, paved the way and gave new governments an opportunity for improvements, leading British society to a strong economic state we are now in.

(Attal Shams)

4th February 2014


Fraser, D. (2009). The evolution of the British welfare state.4th ed. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publisher Ltd.

Rees, R.,Collier, M. And Lewis,E. (2001). Poverty and Public Health 1815-1948. Harlow, United Kingdom: Heinemann Educational Publisher.

National Archives (April,2013) Britain 1906-1918 [online] accessed (2014)

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