Why did social policy questions come to dominate British politics in the decade before the First World War

Toward the end of the Victorian age, Britain underwent rapid reform in many political areas. Disraeli and Gladstone were the notable two who had enacted changes to both domestic and foreign policy and altered British politics irrevocably. In spite of this, there was a perceived decline in traditional industry, agriculture and influence abroad throughout and following the last twenty years of Victoria’s life.

In 1904, the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration found that Britain’s growing urban population was living in increased squalor, and this brought to light a reality that shocked a great many voters and policymakers. At the beginning of the Edwardian period, the political landscape was dominated by matters of social policy and the object of this essay is to determine why social policy, above all other policy areas, was so prominent at this time. Before this is possible, however, it is necessary to look at what those social policy questions were, and how their debates progressed.

The first area of social policy to be discussed is that of tariff reform. Following the Boer War (1899-1902) Arthur James Balfour’s Conservative government sought to reduce the high wartime income taxes whilst retaining high levels of spending on social reform. While this was a short-term concern for the government, a worry of longer standing was that manufacturing industries were in decline – as illustrated by the statistic that, while only 6% of imports in 1860 were manufactured goods, in 1900 they made up as much as 25%.

It was the Chancellor Joseph Chamberlain’s belief that the extra tax revenue and the respite to manufacturing industry could both be derived from protectionism. This matter concerned social affairs just as much as it did economic according to Chamberlain, even though much of his Parliamentary support was drawn from staunch pro-tariff MPs whose disposition was little to do with concern for workers at this time.

Chamberlain held that Britain should allow cheap imports only from British colonies, on the understanding that these economies would accept British finished goods in return. Such an attempt at greater economic union is likely to have been influenced by envious analysis of Germany’s successes through the Zollverein.

Whilst generating revenue from the tariffs placed outside the Empire, the government would both secure a home market and then be able to plough these funds into welfare schemes.

As Prime Minister, Balfour held a different course so as not to alienate the free-traders, even though they were in a declining minority at this time. Balfour made the argument that tariffs should not be increased, and that the government should force concessions out of the protectionist governments so that ultimately, once the antagonists had backed down, free trade would be in place.

Unfortunately for Balfour, the free trade lobby continued to decrease and, having lost the 1905 election he was faced with even fewer Parliamentary supporters when even the remaining handful of free traders decided that Lloyd George’s left wing approach was a greater threat than protectionism.

What did become apparent during this time was that electoral support was in fact with the government whose trade approach did not keep food prices relatively high. In the January 1910 election, Asquith’s Liberals were the more popular party partly because they recognised that cheap imports could offset any latent unrest amongst workers.

Divisions over tariff reform hurt the Conservatives deeply during this time. This is part of the reason why tariff policy – a policy with great social ramifications – remained one of the key political questions of the day; it made for good electoral fodder as far as the Liberals concerned. It was what had revived them following divisions at the end of the 19th century and continued to give them a strong position from which to organise grass-roots support and to launch demagogic campaigns, both of which were key at a time when the electorate appeared uninformed and notably faddist.

The second social policy question posed in the decade before the First World War was how to ease civil unrest, which was a constant threat as factions of labour and factions of property had continually opposing interests. In 1901 there came the controversial Taff Vale judgment, which insisted unions pay for any financial losses incurred during strike action.

This judgment was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it had much to do with the sudden growth of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Representation Committee. Prior to the judgment, only 367,000 union members were affiliated to the LRC, paying only a small subscription fee and somewhat undermining MacDonald’s claim to represent labour. Once Taff Vale had occurred, union leaders were keen to advance their stake in Parliamentary politics and by 1903 861,000 members were affiliated to the LRC paying higher fees, and assigning a salary to each LRC candidate elected to Parliament.

The Taff Vale judgment also had corollaries after 1901 as increased strike action ensued. This was attributable to the cost of living accelerating beyond the increase in wages. During the period before World War 1, employment increased, minimum wages were assured to miners, and in 1906 the Trades Disputes Act overturned the Taff Vale judgment. Not only were workers and their unions afforded greater powers to strike, moreover they were being afforded a strong hand in the ongoing class struggle through Parliamentary cooperation. In this way, by addressing union concerns within the mainstream political agenda the Liberals managed to avoid marginalising potentially militant factions.

The third social policy question that came to prominence in this period was how to pay for any welfare reforms. Aside from tariff reform, which has already been outlined, there were few radical solutions proposed until David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. In this budget, Lloyd George proposed legislation to pave the way for land taxes. Although the budget did not enact the taxes immediately, it proposed an evaluation of all land to the end that it should later come to be taxed according to its value. At the same time, the budget was to introduce state pensions.

The 1909 budget was a key contribution to questions of social policy not just in the pre-WW1 years, but well beyond that. Firstly, it set in motion the radical motions toward a welfare state with a graduated redistributive tax to be placed on land. Secondly, it gave individuals beyond working age the right to income from the state. Thirdly, it set back the protectionist debate by showing that social reforms were possible under free trade. Lastly, it secured strong Labour loyalty when it became apparent that the budget was to result in a standoff with the Lords. These four facts were significant in reshaping the way British politics was to deal with social policy.

The budget was a seen as state interventionism, but it was beneficent and had the overwhelming support of the electorate – as the two elections of 1910 showed. The reforms included halving the rate of income tax paid by children, reducing the top band of tax from £5,000 to £3,000 and levying a death duty of 20% on all estates valued at over £1million.

These measures had considerable popularity with the working class voters, but the middle classes in some areas responded with dismay to this new course of social redistribution. Some industrialists also condemned government forays into what had previously been matters mediated purely between firms and workers.

It has been considered in the past that this particular set of social policy issues, as raised by the 1909 budget, were simply forced by a pugnacious Lloyd George seeking to precipitate a battle between the Commons and the Lords which would curtail Lords’ powers for good. A more likely answer, however, is that the Chancellor was rather responding to the negativism of the Conservative opposition. It had been the opposition’s strategy to use their majority in the Lords to thwart Liberal reforms on education, licensing and land. This had divided Liberals, with some persisting with their manifesto programmes, others objecting that this was a waste of time, and others venting their anger at the Lords. Rather than deliberately proposing a popular budget that the Conservatives would reject at their peril, Lloyd George’s budget was considered in its approach, proposing overtures to land taxes rather than their immediate introduction.

So, the ensuing predominance of social policy debates was as much to do with Lloyd George’s political expediency within Parliament as it was to do with any far-reaching constitutional bellicosity.

It is apparent from the above areas of social policy that the dominance of social policy questions in the decade before WW1 is in part due to electoral pressure for such matters to be discussed. Universal male suffrage was roundly opposed by a huge majority of the political elite, in some cases because the electorate was deemed to immature and uninformed to make rational decision en masse, and in other cases because it would raise the issues surrounding female suffrage.

So the electoral pressure did not come from the working masses, but from a more limited franchise whose concerns were to protect their property, or in the cases of the least well-off voters, to keep their food cheap. This does not offer sufficient explanation for the Edwardian progressivism, however. Martin Pugh highlights the fact that it was during the Victorian era that the Liberals came to characterise themselves as those who would prefer the state, rather than private individuals, to offer basic provisions ‘from water and gas to parks and libraries’. Many Lib-Lab politicians at the turn of the century had failed to achieve electoral success because of their failure to espouse state-interventionist attitudes, hence negating their working class appeal.

It was around this time that the Liberal Imperialist movement arose. This was a faction of Liberals in and around Parliament who, according to T. Boyle, rose from an eighth of Liberal MPs in 1892 to over a third in 1905. Building on a Victorian sense of duty, many young Liberals had grown up with a sense of unease regarding their acquired wealth existing alongside the abject squalor of urban communities. Many of these young Liberals had served in social projects within industrial communities before entering Parliament.

Because of the consensual opposition to a broader franchise, it was apparent to the Liberal Imperialists that the only way to solve the social problems of the day would be through deliberative, intellectual, Liberal politics.

While this was an important movement in Parliament prior to the timeframe of this essay, it soon became discredited because of its imperialist support for extreme acts in the Transvaal, including Kitchener’s concentration camps. However, the movement was a Liberal manifestation of something larger. The idea of ‘National Efficiency’ drew from the belief that Britain was in decline due to decadence and waste, and the unsatisfactory use of human capital. The National Efficiency view was shared at one end by Fabian socialists and could even just be attributed to Balfour. To these factions, social reform was absolutely necessary for the good of the economy in order that the workforce be used to its fullest potential – meaning at its healthiest and at its happiest.

This movement also required that the fragmented, ineffective system of local government pass up its powers once again to central government. There were, for example, over 2,500 school boards in the country each with insufficient power to operate effectively. It was characteristic of National Efficiency thinking that governments should begin to operate with less involvement of full Cabinet, and greater use of Cabinet committees in order to bypass the quarrelsome and delaying executive body. By doing this, the overbearing desire for social debate was able to overcome the agenda and gain momentum.

The legacy of Gladstone and the Irish question would appear also to have had some influence on the Edwardian agenda. By the 1890s, the Liberals had managed to alienate middle class support by being the party largely seen as the advocates of Home Rule and little else. In this way, the party’s support came from little more than those wishing to protest and those going with the fad. It was well apparent to the Liberals and the country by the mid 1890s that Home Rule was a hopeless Gladstonian archaism which had to be forgotten, mainly because it would never pass through the Lords. So, by shaking off the shadow of Home Rule, and then later their awkward differences over the Boer War, the Liberals were able to unite under Asquith and take issue with the Conservatives over matters they had longed to contest for some time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *