Was New Liberalism the most important factor behind the Liberal Government’s welfare reforms in the years 1906-14

New Liberalism was the expansion of changing attitudes in society at the beginning of the 20th Century, adopted by the younger generation of the Liberal party. In contrast to Old Liberalism, New Liberalism proposed the abandonment of the government’s previous ‘laissez-faire’ attitude for a more involved government and a better relationship between the state and its people. By taking measures to improve the social conditions in which the people lived and worked, the Liberals believed that they could create a workforce more unified in its actions and more efficient in its tasks, providing ample opportunity to improve other important features of society, for example the economy. Of course for any improvements to be made to social conditions, a significant amount of legislation had to be passed, the main focus of which at this point was to enable the redistribution of wealth.As with any new initiative, there was a substantial amount of opposition, not only from the Conservatives but also from the older more traditional ‘Gladstonian’ Liberals. These groups thought it was best for government to intervene as little as possible in state affairs, especially in the economy; this view was also shared by many upper and middle class people. Despite this resistance, politicians such as Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were crucial to the implementation of these reforms, and “wished to see a far more collectivist approach to improving life for the lower classes” (Byrne). Ultimately, the reforms proved to be very successful and gladly welcomed, especially by the working classes.The New Liberalist aim of redistribution of wealth was idealistic, modern and extremely radical at the time. It was clear that no matter which way they went about it, the Liberals would have to face fierce opposition, at the very least from the upper classes. The Liberals’ motive for wanting to implement these reforms has often been drawn into question by present day historians: were they looking to create the ‘welfare state’ that was to develop later on? Or were they merely trying to inhibit socialism and preserve the economic status quo by preventing the erosion of the workforce due to poor health? Some historians believe that ”the Liberals of 1906-14 would have been appalled by the prospect of a ‘welfare state”’. My understanding is that it was not just the Liberals’ love of collectivism and justice that caused them to introduce these social reforms.The main social drivers behind the welfare reforms were poverty and changing attitudes towards it. Before the 20th century poverty was very difficult to measure, due to the lack information available at the time. The Poor Law, statistics about poverty provided by the government, showed that from 1834-1900 there was a 6.3% decrease in poverty throughout the country. Sources show that these statistics were clearly inaccurate and was the government’s attempt to show that poverty was manageable and even in decline. Also, the public’s perception of poverty generally prevented anything being done about it. The upper and middle classes believed that the poor drove themselves into poverty through drinking and laziness. The poor themselves had a very proud attitude: they felt ashamed that they could not care for their families and did not want to receive relief of any kind, as this usually meant going to the workhouse. The real causes of poverty were the irregular wages and the insecurity of tenure, meaning people often moved to towns seeking daily work at places such as the dockyards.Since the beginning of the century, peoples’ attitudes towards poverty had begun to change for the better. The investigations led by people such as Rowntree and Booth exposed the true nature and causes of poverty. Rowntree’s ‘A Study of a Town’ alone showed that ‘from 25 to 30 per cent of the town populations of the United Kingdom are living in poverty’. This increased sympathy towards the poor from the upper and middle classes; the problem of poverty could no longer be ignored. It was clear to the Liberal government that the Poor Law would have to be re-evaluated and the workhouses completely abolished. It was mainly the New Liberals that saw the need for social security and ‘freedom for all’, but it was clear to the entire party that the working classes had to be kept on side.The political factors influencing the social reforms of 1906-14 revolved around the Liberal government’s fear of socialism. Due to the electoral reforms of 1867 and 1885 almost all men in the country had the right to vote, provided they rented or owned property worth over �10/a. This included members of the working class and meant that they now had the opportunity to influence decisions that affected them. They also had a new party to vote for that was largely in favour of working class rights. Though the Labour party had just started up and were still relatively small, it was a growing party and the Liberals still had reason to fear the spread of socialism.Therefore, the Liberals had to find a way to keep the middle class on side, whilst also attracting working class voters. The welfare legislation was their solution. It was hoped that the introduction of New Liberalism would keep the public’s attention and be enough to stave off the challenge of the Labour party.The Liberal government also had economic issues to deal with, which were closely linked with the topic of war. Foreign competition from countries such as Germany and the USA meant that Britain was no longer at the forefront of the industrial world. Industries such as coal and cotton appeared to be doing well, but the costs of production were rising rapidly. Furthermore, countries that Britain usually exported to were becoming more self-sufficient in areas such as textiles and mining. It was clear that something needed to be done to get Britain back in the running, and it was the aftermath of the Boer war that brought the idea of National Efficiency to light. Almost 1/3 of men who volunteered for service during the Boer war were turned away due to malnutrition, a horrifically large proportion, which could not be ignored. It was evident that the government needed to implement social reform to ensure that men were able to work efficiently as well as be in prime condition to be called upon as a fighting force when needed; in no time Britain would be heading the industrial front again. Moreover, these reforms would pay for themselves and allow excess wealth to be spent on re-armament – an important factor when considering the increasing probability of European warfare.It was the confluence of these social, economic and political factors that meant that the Liberals had no choice but to implement social reform. For the Liberals, the beginning was really the Old Age pensions act which was enacted in 1908. The People’s budget of 1909 and the subsequent constitutional crisis of 1911 only helped to further Liberalist aims, influencing reforms dealing with the sick, infirm, unemployed, widowed and children. Though some of the reasons for enacting these policies were selfish, sometimes superficial and made for political expediency, many of these reforms did a lot of good and were the beginnings of what is now the welfare state. Lloyd George himself said ‘No country can be called civilised that allows them [orphans] to starve’. The New Liberalism ideal of a fairer and more secure state was all but achieved. However, it was only one of many aspects influencing the government’s eventual decision.