Reasons for the Liberal Social Welfare Reforms
For most of the 19th century, most people believed in ‘laissez-fraire’ and accepted that poverty and
hardship were not things the government could or should do anything about. However, the Liberal
Government (led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George)
introduced a range of social welfare reforms to help alleviate the poverty and hardship suﬀered by children,
the elderly, the unemployed and workers.
Surveys of Booth and Rowentree (1): Surveys Demonstrated the True Extent of
Seebohm Rowentree’s study of York published in 1900 entitled ‘Poverty, A Study of Town Life’. Rowentree
concluded that “we are faced with the startling probability that from 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the town
populations of the United Kingdom are living in poverty.” In York Rowentree found 229 houses sharing 155
water taps. He also discovered 247 infants per 1000 dying in poor areas before the age of one, compared
to 94 infants per 1000 in families wealthy enough to hire servants.
Charles Booth’s ‘Life and Labour of the People of London’ published from the 1886-1903 ran to 17
volumes. Booth investigated over 1 million families and found that 305 of Londoners lived in poverty.
Studies demonstrated that the true extent of poverty in Britain and opened the eyes of many of the
middle classes to the horrific conditions that large numbers of the population endured. Many now
realised that something had to be done by government to alleviate the impact of such extensive
Surveys of Booth and Rowentree (1): Surveys Demonstrated the True Causes of
Seebohm Rowentree made careful use of recent scientific work to establish what a family needed to earn to
buy adequate and fuel and to pay the rent. He concluded that 52% of the very poor were paid wages too
low to sustain an adequate life. Around 21% of families lived in misery because the chief wage earner had
died, or was too ill or to old to work. His ‘poverty cycle of a labourer’ demonstrated how vulnerable
unskilled workers were in childhood, fatherhood and old age.
Charles Booth demonstrated that low pay, lack of regular work, supporting large families, illness and old
age were the major causes of poverty. Booth argued that only 15% of the poor were in such a position
because of drink or laziness.
Studies proved that the vast majority of the poor were poor through no fault of their own. Previous
attitudes that existed- that the poor were poor through their own actions such as through laziness or
drunkenness- were changed by studies which showed the importance of illness, old age and low pay
in causing poverty. However, whilst humanitarian concern was a significant motive it was not strong
enough to overcome financial considerations. For example, the old age pension was limited to those
over 70 although the Liberals were perfectly aware that millions under this age were in desperate
need of help.
The historian Peter Murray has noted that the move toward helping the poorest in society: “was given a
powerful impetus by the revelations of Booth and Rowentree.
Fears over National Security (1): Concerns about National Security
Sparked by the military disaster of the Boer war (1899-1902) and the poor physical condition of recruits in
particular. During the recruitment campaign half of the volunteers had been found to be medically unfit. In
Manchester 8000 of the men who volunteered for the army had to be rejected as physically unsuitable at
once: only 1200 were eventually accepted. To ensure adequate number of recruits the minimum height
requirement for entry into the army was dropped from 5 ft 6 inches to 5 ft 2 inches before the Boer war.
The founder of the Boy Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell, one of the Boer War heroes warned
“recent reports on the deterioration of our race ought ton act as a warning to be taken in time before it goes
There were fears that the security of the nation was under threat. The armed forces would be unable
to operate eﬀectively. If forced to recruit from such a poverty ravaged population. Government action
was therefore required to improve the health of these potential recruits. However, not all the reforms
could have been motivated by fears for national security. The old age pension for example would not
have contributed to improving Britain’s military capability.
Fears over National Security (2): Concerns about Industrial Eﬃciency
British industry was facing increasing competition from factories in Germany and the United States.
In 1905 a group of experts reported that “No country can permanently hold its own in the race of
international competition if hampered by an increasing load of this dead weight of poverty”
School was now compulsory for and it was obvious to teachers and the education authorities that large
numbers of children were coming to school hungry, dirty or suﬀering from ill-health. In particular it was
argued that children would have to be fed properly if they were to learn properly. “feed the stomach, feed
Britain had led the industrialised world during the nineteenth century but was losing its dominance.
In order to regain this it needed healthy men and woman to man machinery, not the malnourished
masses that existed at this time. There was concern that in comparison to Britain’s economic rivals
such as Germany and the USA British workers were insuﬃciently healthy, energetic or educated -
and that government action was required to put this right. However, not everyone agreed that
government intervention to help the poor was the answer to improving industrial eﬃciency. Not all
businessmen supported the social reforms.. For example, Lancashire businessmen formed an
association to fight the insurance reforms of 1911.
Eric Evans believes that fears about national security were the most important factor behind the Liberals
decision to introduce reforms arguing that “the single most important precondition for the spate of social
reforms between 1906 and 1914 was fear of the consequences of an unfit and debilitated population”
Rise of the Labour Party
The Third Reform Act of 1884 had extended the vote to all males who were householders. The electorate
increased from 2.5 million to 5 million, the additional voters being almost all working class. Such voters had
traditionally voted for the Liberal Party.
Socialist groups such as the Social Democratic Foundation and the Fabian Society emerged. Such groups
helped to influence the thinking of many working class voters through the publication of books, pamphlets
The Labour Party was formed in 1900 and made rapid progress. Two MPs were elected in in 1900 but by
the election of 1906 this had increased to 29. By this date the Labour Party had secured the support of
over half a million voters. In 1907 the Liberals lost two by-elections to Labour Party candidates.
In 1906 Lloyd George told a crowded meeting of Liberals “I can tell them what will make this Labour Party a
great and sweeping force in this country… if at the end of an average term of oﬃce, it was found that the
Liberal Party had done nothing to cope seriously with the social conditions of the people……… then would
a cry arise in this land for a new party”
The Liberal Party needed to hold on to the votes of the large number of working class granted the
vote in 1884. From the 1880s Liberals had seen the rise of socialist groups which convinced the
voters of the need for greater government intervention to relieve poverty. Increasing numbers of
voters were voting for the newly established Labour Party which supported socialist ideas and
greater government intervention to help the poor. The Liberal felt that they had to do something to
compete with the Labour Party and to hold on to their working class support. They hoped to make
sure that the working class did not defect to the Labour Party by introducing reforms which would
benefit working class people I.e. the poor. However, the impact of the Labour Party should not be
over exaggerated. It was still relatively small and the Liberals could just have easily worried about
losing middle-class voters to the Conservative Party by introducing reforms to help the poor.
Graham Goodlad has stated that “Fear of ‘socialism’ may well have encouraged the Liberals to bring
forward their own reforms, so that there would be no need for the masses to turn to Labour”