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Consider the view that the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul

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Consider the view that the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul

Between 1906 and 1914 the Liberal Government passed many reforms concerning the

old the young, the sick and those without work. At the time the acts were fresh and far

reaching and some believe them to be the foundations of the welfare state, to what we

know it today. The acts were considered radical as a shift of attitudes towards the poor

and needy seemed to be occurring. The liberal party pre this period stood for certain

principles and ideologies which are referred to as individualism. Up until this period

the government only intervened in reasons such as law and order and protecting the

country from attack. It was seen as each individuals obligation to be responsible for

their own well being. Poverty amongst the working classes was often seen as a

circumstance caused by drunkenness or idleness[1].

To consider the view that that the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more

concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul is to

regard the reforms passed as acts of the government clutching at straws because they

wanted to grant just enough change to head off the Socialists and keep the old way of

society in place and to maintain electoral popularity, rather than acts of genuine

sincerity towards welfare change. It will be argued that the new merged Labour party

was laying down pressure thus became a  major reason that the Liberals had to try and .

head off socialist advance

The difficulties in the question is that there are many views as to why the reforms

were passed and some reforms did reach extremely far reaching measures, making it

easy to understand why one would come to the opinion that the acts passed were those

of radical sincerity. Other problems are that when researching reform bills passed

there have only been a selected few mentioned. If each reform passed in this period

was to be investigated the question proposed for discussion would greatly exceed the

expected words of the essay.

To establish authenticity to the view that the liberal government reforms were acts of

maintaining Edwardian society this essay will include information on vital events

leading up to each reform that I feel is of great significance for the validity of the

essay. Arguments and sources by historians will also be mentioned in order to add a

wider scale of argument into the essay. The essay will be structured by exploring each

group in which the reforms belonged to, beginning with the first group of measures

that were passed, which were those affecting children, followed by those effecting the

old, those affecting the sick and those affecting the British workforce.

January 1906, the liberal government won the general election in a landslide result.

The Liberals won 401 whilst counting on the support of 29 labour members. Although

when the liberals were in power it was known as an ’era of great social reform’, there

was vague mention of reforms pre election. It would be then, extremely likely that

reform was most certainly not an intended measure but a consequence of what the

essay will be exploring greater into, that, when in power, the Labour party pressured

the liberal government  to push through reform bills. A manner of being that was

accepted by he government in order to grant crumbs to head off socialist advance.[2]

The liberals were victorious almost everywhere, even in well known conservative

areas. The argument of tariff reform lost the Conservatives a lot of support as the

Liberal Party promoted free trade. Already it is clear then, that to get into power and

to retain it, that the liberals had to rely on right wing support in the conservatives,

which mean that any reforms passed needed to suit this way of thinking. However,

tariff reform was a programme that failed to attract the working classes, therefore the

liberals had also gained power on votes from the left wing too, as well as making a

pact with the labour party to secure a non-conservative victory[3]4.

The fact that there had all of a sudden grown a strong emergence of the labour party

in the house of commons is extremely important when it comes to arguing that social

reforms passed in this period were concerned with the maintenance of Edwardian

society. The new labour party had emerged from strong opposition of the Taff Vale

Case, 1901. In the general election of 1906, 30 candidates that stood as straight labour

managed to win seats in parliament and 24 candidates that stood as lib labour. This

meant that there obviously a high proportion of the population that were supporting

socialist ideas within the Labour party. The reform act of 1867 helped the situation

allowing the franchise to be available to all householder men, for the first time certain

working class men were able to insert input to who was to hold government[4]5.    

The first of the many reforms passed by the Liberal party concerned children. The

provision of meals act 1906, is a prime example of an act passed primarily out of a

desire to head off the socialist advance. This is evident as the firstly proposed bill, put

forward by the Labour party, not the liberals was considerably watered down when

finally passed. The labour party requested that school children were guaranteed to be

fed school meals provided by their local authority. The final act passed did not

completely meet the needs of the labour party as all it managed to obtain was that  

local authorities had the right to provide school meals, it did not directly secure it.

Even  by 1939 less than 50% of school children were actually being provided this

service. Instead of opposing to the private members bill in parliament the liberals met

half way. The growing pressure of the labour party was the main reason for the act.

The liberals had to try and maintain balance and were able to justify their decisions to

more individualist members of the party by reasons of political pragmatism, they did

not to any extent, want to witness the labour party grow a political advantage over

them. In essence then, it was an act that had to be passed in order to head off socialist


The Education (Administrative Provisions), act (1907) , again, was another implement

pushed on by back bench consistency. It had actually been proposed with the

education act a year before but had lost in the house of Lords. Prominently it seemed

the pressure was mounting. The liberals knew what Labour had in mind and had to

find a way to reach the conditions on a passable scale that they could get away with.

This is quite evident as just before the act was passed the liberals had to reject another

one of Labours proposals concerning the same bill as they had already drawn up their

own. Their bill assured that medical inspection will be provided in each school[6]6. Like

the provision of meals act (1906), it was a product stimulated by the 1904 Physical

Deterioration Report. The report noted that it was vital for children to acquire a fare

amount of cleanliness and nutrition. It recommend that children should be given the

chance to have "every branch of domestic hygiene, including the preparation of food,

the practice of household cleanliness, the tendance and feeding of young children",

and made recommendations for Medical inspections of children in schools, Free

school meals for the very poor and Training in mother craft[7]7.

Clearly, the liberals were meeting with some of the demands of the report, to what

extent, is a different question. The act did assure that medical inspections were free,

but treatment, however, was not. As mentioned the  provision of meals act (1906) was

immoderately diminished in effect similarly to the Education (Administrative

Provisions). At the same time the Physical Deterioration Report was a direct response

from the Director General of the Army Medical Services. He claimed that the Boer

War had sufficiently suffered due to the poor health of recruiters. He stressed that it

was crucial that future generations did not have to end up the same way. This is an

idea know as national efficiency. It is argued by many historians that National

Efficiency was a direct reason for many of the reforms passed in the period 1906-

1914. J R Hays states “school meals and medical inspections of school-children were

both products of the climate of opinion created by the Boer war”[8]8. If this is the case it

is vital to note that these opinions are of concern, but most likely of concern from the

socialist elite. Although the government saw this as a problem it was one which was

being stressed by other directions and could not be ignored due to the importance of

the Physical Deterioration Report. It was another issue being thrown at them which

would be impossible to decline, but used to the governments advantage when faced

with objections to acts from the more individualist members of the party.  

Previous to 1909, although sufficient bills were passed, none touched as close to

public approval than the Old age pensions act (1909). Around half a million men and

women benefited from the act. Although, again there were draw backs. The people

that took advantage of the act had to be over seventy and not have criminal

convictions. Though it can be argued that there was no longer the moral stigma

attached when applying like the previous poor law, which saw  participants as victims

of their own moral setbacks. This is all well and good, but the reasoning behind the

bill is again one of heading off a socialist advance rather than of moral concern for the


“As late as 1906 the Liberals, as a party were not committed to old age pensions” J R

Hay quotes 1[10]0 This is most certainly the case. Britain was already twenty years passed

talk off the bill and many other countries such as Germany and New Zealand had

already taken up the idea. When the liberals came to office they were faced with

increasing pressure  not just from The Labour party (When made into a parliamentary

strength it was the labour parties first debate to push through old age pensions), but

from the co operative movement, the TUC, the Fabians along side the friendly

societies and the Charity Organisation Society, both of whom had previously opposed

to the idea.1[11]1 Although aims in the act may have been different between each society

the general principle of old age pensions was there.

Administrative momentum is quite clear when it comes to old age pensions. In 1907

three liberal seats were lost to Labour in a by election. In his famous quote Lloyd

George, soon to become the Liberal parties famous Chancellor of the Exchequer

admitted “It is time we did something that appealed straight to the people-it will, I

think help to stop this electoral rot and that is most necessary”.1[12]2

The Liberals knew it was time to push the bill forward in order to make sure they

would withhold a political advance. Again the bill had to be levelled out in order to

grant just enough leeway to head of socialist advance. Therefore it did not meet the

requirements of the Labour party, as they stressed that many individuals would not

live past seventy, therefore would not be able to enjoy the scheme. As well as the fact

that 5s to a single adult and 7s between a married couple was just not enough.

Nevertheless, the scheme did meet the main demands of the labour party that the bill

was non-contributory based, which at the time was extremely radical and did indicate

that the poor did need state help and were not in that position through their own moral


The growth of the Labour party can also take responsibility for many reforms passed

in this revolutionary period concerning workers and those without work. For forty

years miners had been campaigning for an eight hour day and in 1908 the eight hour

day bill was introduced. A long hard battle been won and when you study the

reasoning behind it close enough it is clear to see why. Apart from the fact the

Liberals lost seats to Labour in a by election a year before, sitting in government were

a vast amount of miner Mps1[14]5.

It was the Labour of Exchange act(1909), however, that really stood out. In working

class areas Liberal M.P’s were fearful of losing seats to labour M.Ps. So when there

seemed to be an unemployment crisis it was the Liberals in these consistencies that

pushed for government action. Yet another need to head of the Labour party in order

to help maintain Edwardian Society. Winston Churchill, newly president of the board

of trade responded to the pleas, and working with a young civil servant William

Beveridge, developed a new scheme to deal with these issues. The Labour Exchanges

act (1909), was one half of the  plan that Churchill personally saw go through. All

throughout the country Labour Exchanges were set up. The plan actually intended an

unemployment insurance alongside the  Labour Exchanges but Churchill did not

complete the scheme as he was promoted to Home Office in 1910. Instead Lloyd

George took over and the scheme was to become one half of the National Insurance


The National Insurance Act  (1911) was one which came in two parts and affected the

sick and the British workforce. It is by all means one of the biggest and crucial act

passed by the liberal government ass many historians agree that it was this act that

crucially evolved into the British welfare state. It was a scheme passed saw that all

wage earners paid a set amount each week and their employer added to that too. In

return free medical attention was available. There was also help to those who had no

opportunity to work.  If needed  a certain amount of money was avaliable to

workers if off work for a certain amount of time. The scheme, which  only included

industries such as  construction, engineering, and ship building  ensured that, if

unemployed a worker would receive 7 shillings a week for a period of 15 weeks in a


The reasoning for national insurance no doubt descended from realisation that there

was actually a huge problem when it came to the general state of the working classes.  

Physical deterioration  reports conducted by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree,

brought to light in estimated figures the real extent of Britain’s poverty. However,

genuine sincerity towards poverty and ill living amongst the lower classes of Britain

does not seem to be a case of why help was being offered. It was a time of great

change, genuine concerns for the poor were being realised and expressed more than

ever before. Other countries were using insurance schemes and the government knew

that it was time for change. Like most of the reforms passed the scheme did not

completely meet the needs of the Labour party and others on the left who saw the

scheme as not far reaching enough as it involved money that had to be deducted form

wages. Again the Liberals managed to half heart ably meet requests from the labour

party but not completely see it through. Kier Hardy, head of the labour party  saw the

scheme as weak as it did not touch on the underlying problem, the capitalist scheme,

as it was not financed by higher taxation of the wealthy1[17]8.      

Between 1906 and 1914 there were a number of reform acts passed that would lead

one to believe lay the foundations of a welfare state. However, at the time it seems

evident that by no means did the government know this was occurring. This is due to

the fact that if the liberal government really wanted a system like the welfare state

they would have given the acts a little more comprehensive coverage than they

managed to. Each act was watered down to suit the political needs of situations

occurring between governments at the time. The newly emerged labour party stood for

the workers of the country, and as mentioned it is clear that the problems of British

poverty was greatly becoming evident and more and more people were willing to get

involved in the matter. Therefore the liberal party knew that they stood as a huge

Threat, so had to keep themselves as middle ground as they possibly could. Therefore

the liberal government reforms 1906-1914 were more concerned with the maintenance

of Edwardian society than its radical overhaul.

The shift of the well known laissez faire attitudes was a result of social change and

circumstance. Each act did not completely meet those on the left sides needs but  at

the same time it is important to note often upset the needs of the higher classes. It is

also vital to remember that most acts mentioned are bills passed that have been talked

about for years. Even if passing them were new at the time the thought behind them

were far from fresh.


Fraser Dereck, The Evolution Of The Welfare State ,London: Macmillan,1984

Hay. J. R , The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914,London: Macmillan, 1983

Lednum, The Liberal Reforms of 1906 - 1914, 07/09/2006, http://lednum.wordpress.com/2006/09/07/the-liberal-reforms-of-1906-1914/, 25/10/2006,

Levenstein H.A  Revolution at the table: the transformation of the American diet, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993

M. P Stuart and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History, London, Routledge, 1992

Rubinstein W.D , TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN, New York , Macmillan, 2003

[1]Lednum,  The Liberal Reforms of 1906 - 1914, 2006

[2]  D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 147.

[3]4  J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 25

[4]5   W.D Rubinstein, TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003) 25

[5]3  W.D Rubinstein, TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003) 38.

[6]6  D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 148.

[7]7 H.A Levenstein (Revolution at the table: the transformation of the American diet), Oxford University Press, New York, 1993

[8]8  J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 43.

[9]9  J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 44

[10]0 10  J. R HAY, The Origins of the Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914(Palgrave Macmillan, 1983) 46

[11]1 1  D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 148.

[12]2 12  D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 154.

[13]3 13 M. P Stuart and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History (Routledge, 1992) 202.

[14]5 15   D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 171.

[15]6 16 M. P Stuart and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History (Routledge, 1992) 205.

[16]7 17 D. Fraser, The Evolution Of The Welfare State (THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTM,1984) 163.

[17]8 18 W.D Rubinstein, TWENTIETH CENTURY BRITAIN (Palgrave Macmillian, 2003) 59.

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