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An Overview of the British Liberal Reforms of 1906 1914



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The Liberal reforms of 1906 to 1914 are generally recognized as the beginning of the modern “welfare state” in Great Britain. They preceded Roosevelt’s New Deal by over 20 years and, compared with the absence of previous governments’ assistance to improve the lot of poor people, these reforms were quite dynamic. The reforms brought about (1) assistance to children; (2) institution of old-age pensions; (3) Unemployment and national insurance programs.

♦ Why the reforms came about

◊ Poverty

Great Britain, at the turn of the 20th century, was facing some serious health and social problems, caused by poverty and the growing power of labor unions. According to the BBC History Site,  a study of the northern English city of York in 1901 “found that 28 percent of the population did not have the minimum to live on at some time of their life.”

◊ Politics

The British Labour Party grew ever stronger and was attracting working voters with its populist approach to social reform. In the 1910 election, the Liberals failed to get a majority and had to form a coalition  with Labour. Many British politicians wanted a concerted government attack on poverty. There was also a growing concern that growing trade union power might sow the seeds for Communist revolution.

◊ Weakening of the British Empire

The British Army and government were appalled when abut two-thirds of the men who tried to enlist were physically unfit to serve. Additionally, the government viewed with growing alarm the rise of Germany as an industrial power  along with Germany’s effective system of welfare for its workers.

♦ The reforms

♦ Assistance to children

◊ 1906 – Local authorities could give free meals at school

◊ 1908 – The “Children’s Charter” imposed criminal penalties for cruelty to and neglect of children.  Children could no longer purchase cigarettes, nor be sent out to beg on the streets. The new law set up juvenile courts and “borstals” (reform schools) for convicted juveniles.

♦ Old Age pensions

◊ 1908 – The British government introduced pensions for the elderly past age 70.  The amount was small, only five shillings a week, or seven shillings six pence for married couples. But, for many, it was the difference between a subsistence living or simply starving.

♦ Unemployment and National Insurance for workers

◊ 1909 – The government set up labor exchanges to help the unemployed to locate jobs.

◊ 1911 - The National Insurance Act was passed with two important parts: (1) Free medical treatment and sick pay for a small contribution of just four pence weekly; and (2) Unemployment pay for 15 weeks for a small contribution of 2.5 pence per week.

♦ Results were mixed

As in any large government welfare effort, the Liberal reforms of 1906-1914 had limited successes and some major disappointments. Examples:

◊ The free school meals program was not made compulsory. Some local government did not see fit to provide the meals.

◊ Old-age pensions were denied to people who had never worked

◊ Labor exchanges only helped in finding part-time work, and the government did nothing to stimulate the job market.

◊ National Insurance provided a less-than-adequate financial benefit, and for only a limited time.

◊ Free medical treatment only covered the wage earner. Families were not included.

More about this author: Jerry Curtis

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