Why did the Liberals concentrate on poverty

Britain was traditionally a hierarchal society and there was a major gulf between the rich and the poor. The upper classes reasoned this because they thought that the working class wasted their money on activities such as drinking. In their opinion, it was their own fault for being poor. Also, there was no realisation of to what extent Britain was suffering from poverty. People simply ignored the situation, or were hidden from the truth; this also accounted for the Conservative government who were in power at the time.

When Rowntree and Booth released a report, which looked at poverty in Britain, the dire situation of much of the British public became apparent. The Rowntree and Booth report raised alarm bells as it proved that the working classes had no choice about being poor, and even if they saved and invested their money perfectly, it was still very unlikely that they could escape poverty. It also found that they couldn’t afford some of the necessities of civilised life. This led to poor health amongst the poorer classes.

The Boer War supported this claim as one third of people who had applied were rejected, as they were unfit. The findings of the report with the support from the Boer War caused a debate over ‘National Efficiency’. The realisation of the state that many people were in was an enormous problem for the government. The thought of the great British Empire being run and lead to war by unfit, and malnourished men was an overwhelming disgrace. After the Boer War, a debate arose over the efficiency of the British workforce.

Along with Britain’s decline as a world power, and the Boer War, it was clear that the only way Britain can continue being as influential in the 20th Century would be to create a strong, healthy, well-educated workforce. Joseph Chamberlain launched his tariff reform campaign in order to address this problem. This could be related to New Liberal ideology. Chamberlain’s measures whilst in office as Mayor of Birmingham made the Liberal party realise that such ideas as local governments managing their own amenities and facilities, could work and benefit the whole community.

The success of the schemes that were set up raised the possibilities of similar ideas being practiced on a national scale. There are four other main factors that attributed to the development of New Liberalism. Firstly, the report by Rowntree and Booth made many Liberals question their traditional values (believing in a policy of Laissez-Faire and ‘Classical Liberalism’) Also the economic situation was less secure than it was in the mid-19th Century. This highlighted the problems with Laissez-Faire and asked the question: “How would a government that followed a policy of state intervention fair in Britain? With this new way of governing Britain, the working class would benefit.

In the late 19th century, the Liberal government abandoned their traditional taxation policy. The chancellor thought that large taxes should be made on ‘unproductive’ wealth and wanted to instate death duties on large incomes. This began to make some Liberals think that state intervention by schemes that were funded by super taxes may be the way forward. Finally, the growing support for socialist ideas and the widening of franchise meant that the Liberals had to adapt their appeal in order to attract more working class people.

The widening franchise was caused by a Parliamentary act passed in the 19th century and resulted in an increase in the number of working class voters (the Liberal party is historically a ‘broad church’ and needs to attract the lower classes). One of the first things Bannermann did was to reverse the ‘Taff Vale’ judgement by protecting unions’ right to strike. This gives the party more support from the working class. Other reforms passed by him did go against the ideas of ‘Classical Liberalism’, but only gave minor provisions to the public like school meals (Education Act 1906), and better working standards (Merchant’s Shipping Act 1906).

These types of legislation were geared up to tackle the problem with national efficiency. They did begin compensation schemes such as the ‘Workman’s Compensation Act’ 1906. These types of reforms showed the changing attitude of the government (gained support from lower classes). However, it is thought that the Conservatives lost power in the 1906 elections rather than the Liberal party winning it: education act 1902, and the poor leadership of Balfour.

Although Campbell-Bannermann was seen as a new liberalist, this was not necessarily the case, as he didn’t include any radical ‘New Liberalist’ ideas into his campaign; sat back and watched the Conservatives make crucial mistakes. Therefore, in his office 1906-08, the fact that he didn’t do much, could suggest that he wasn’t a true ‘New Liberalist’ politician. When Campbell-Bannermann resigned in 1908, Asquith took control (much more of a radical new Liberal). Under Asquith was his the main two cabinet members Churchill and Lloyd George who were also very keen to try out some of the more socialist ideas in order to solve problems in Britain.

Both can be seen as government initiatives because of the fact they were the only two members to propose a key reform. However, there is evidence to support the idea that there was opposition to some of the reforms within the cabinet. The political tactics of the two men ensured that some middle-class votes were retained and also trying to make loyalty of the working-class. The social reforms also gained more votes by ‘taking the thunder’ away from the labour party. It was not until after 1908 when Asquith took over did the Liberal party pass any radical legislation though parliament.

One of the reasons why the Liberal party begin to follow a much more radical form of “New Liberalism’ was because elections were coming up; they had been through a bad patch politically and needed to regain its support. Under Asquith, and the two most influential new liberals of his cabinet, Lloyd George and Churchill, began to pass radical legislation. These new-age politicians had new forward ideas of how to solve some of the problems in Britain. One of the first, and most consequential of all reforms was the 1909 People’s Budget. This was because it was the first time wealth had been redistributed.

It introduced super tax on high incomes, and also a road and land tax. It also put duties on petrol, tobacco, and alcohol. All of the collected revenue went towards funding ‘Old Age Pension Act’ 1909. It was the consequential reform passed because it resulted in a constitutional crisis and furthermore the ‘Parliamentary Act’1911. This act of 1911 solved the crisis and also changed the constitution; parliaments only had power for five years and not seven, and more importantly, the Lords could no longer reject bills (only delay them).

This was the Liberals way of sidestepping the Lords so they could pass any legislation they wanted (they could continue helping the poor). Other reforms passed were the ‘Labour Exchanges Act’ 1909 which made it easier for the unemployed to find work, and the ‘Trade Board Act’ 1909 which made sure the pay and conditions of several industries were kept to a correct standard. Finally, the ‘National Insurance Act’ of 1911 gave a direct payment to qualifying members of the public. The two types of insurance given were health insurance, and insurance against unemployment.

This supported the ‘Workman’s Compensation Act’ of 1906 and meant that if poor people got injured of ill, they were covered (given compensation). Between 1906 and 1911, the Liberal party exercised their new, radical ideas. These ideas had an enormous impact on the working class and encouraged a new way of governing Britain (state intervention). Many reasons can be given for the reasoning of why the Liberal party concentrated on poverty. One of the most obvious reasons was because there was a real problem that needed to be dealt with; Rowntree and Booth report publicised this problem.

Secondly, the growing number of working class voters meant that a new franchise was made. This new sector of voters was also very disillusioned as they were often very politically unaware. Because the Liberal party was traditionally a broad church, the votes from these people needed to be won; they knew that a focus on poverty would win these votes. The concentration on the poor by the Liberal party reflected their new way of thinking. This New Liberalism involves state intervention and also a bigger focus on certain Marxist views (redistribution of wealth).

The reforms passed by the Liberal government of 1906-11 could be reasoned by their genuine belief that the gulf between the social classes in Britain needed to be narrowed. Also, the growth of socialism in both Britain and the rest of Europe could have influenced the Liberals to focus more on the working class in an attempt to meet the preferences of the mass public. This concentration on the poverty due to electoral reasons could also be apparent by the fact they intensified their radical reforms after 1908 (in the run up to an election).

The legislation they passed could therefore be just a deliberate ploy in order to gain more votes. However, in my own opinion, I think that the Liberal party were serious about some of the socialist aspects in politics at the time and they seized the opportunity to, in their minds, solve some of the problems in the British class structure (poverty). This is proved by the positive impact that some of the reforms passed had on the working class. I also believe however, that they did flaunt their radical nature in order to gain electoral support (Asquith’s government used New Liberalism to gain support in the up coming elections).

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