Why did the Liberal governments of 1905 – 15 introduce welfare reforms

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There were a variety of reasons why the Liberal governments of 1905 – 15 introduced so many welfare reforms, but perhaps the most important reason was the need for national efficiency.

Many Liberals saw the growing need for national efficiency and this being emphasised by growing economic threat from the USA and Germany. The way in which this could be achieved was through a healthy workforce. A healthy and educated workforce would be more efficient and more profitable and so therefore some reform was necessary for national survival. Lloyd George himself had seen the economic wealth of Germany and was concerned that a physically poor workforce was inefficient at a time when foreign economic competition was making British goods seem less competitive. The Liberals needed to get Britain back on a level with other countries like Germany in terms of economic success but also militarisation e.g. the Naval Arms Race.

“Here was a model for what he wished to do in Britain, and he sent officials to study it in more detail.” Maurice Bruce, ‘The Coming of the Welfare State (1961).’

Another key point was the need for social reform. The Liberals were under pressure from the Labour Party and from the Trade Unions, and there was the added incentive that a limited amount of social reform would attract voters away from socialism and so defeat the challenge from the Labour Party. The need to capture socialist votes was expressed through a speech made by Winston Churchill in 1908.

“Socialism wants to pull down wealth, Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty… Socialism assails the maximum pre-eminence of the individual – Liberalism seeks to build up the minimum standard of the masses.”

Essentially the development of New Liberalism was perhaps the spark that ignited the fire of reform. There was a growing need for state intervention and more social reform to tackle the reprehensible degree of inequality between the people. Poverty had become a greater social concern and, according to new statistics, on its way up.

“…the laissez-faire policy was not likely to bring the cure.” Herbert Samuel ‘Liberalism’ (1902).

Men such as Booth and Rowntree demonstrated that poverty was not caused by character defects, as some Liberals had once argued, but by old age, low wages and large families. New Liberals noticed that the New Poor Law 1834 was not deterring poverty or alleviating it. It was out dated and out modified and a new idea was required to solve the problem of poverty. Reforms which were aimed to promote real liberty and social harmony were the answer.

One can argue that the above factors were the key to the introduction of welfare reforms but many other issues were equally significant in their own right.

The Liberal government was more or less forced into some legislation, namely the legislation to provide free meals for needy children as a result of the introduction of a private member’s bill by the Labour MP William Wilson. Anxious not to be seen as less radical than the new Labour Party, the government made the bill its own.

Another case concerned Sir Robert Morant, the permanent secretary at the Board of Education, was determined to see medical provision introduced into the nation’s schools. He managed to slip the relevant clauses into a complicated and technical piece of legislation and few MP’s noticed or understood what he had done. Once the bill became law, Morant issued directives and circulars to local authorities, regulating the service and authorising them to provide treatment as well as inspection.

A vital factor in many Liberal welfare reforms came from one man, Lloyd George. His idea of radical social reforms provided a basis for future legislation. He believed in the re-distribution of wealth along more equitable lines as to care for those who can’t take care of themselves. He wanted state intervention and collective responsibility as to help those by providing them with a minimum standard of living.

“A line below which we will not allow persons to live and labour, yet above which they may compete with the strength of their manhood.” Winston Churchill.

There were many reasons why the Liberals introduced numerous welfare reforms but perhaps the overriding reason was their desire for national efficiency. This could only be achieved by a healthy workforce and thus social reforms had to be introduced.

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