The key concept of Old Liberalism was the view of society as a collection of individuals. From this came the idea that the only proper, decent way to encourage economic growth, and thus, a better country, was to encourage entrepreneurship, and individual liberty. The Classical Liberalists were against Government intervention in the lives of their populace for this reason, as they believed that were they to help people who found themselves in trouble, then they would give them no motivation to drag themselves out of their problems, thus stunting entrepreneurship.
The government’s role, in the eyes of these Gladstonian Liberals should be solely to remove all barriers to individualism, and to provide very limited social services. To do anymore to interfere in the lives of those downtrodden masses would be to removes the need for self-improvement, and thus the need to make your own money, and finally would stagnate the economy.
New Liberalism, however, took a much different view. It was, it was said, the governments duty to help those in need, and give them support. It could be argued, they said, that to intervene in people’s lives at some point could actually provide the liberty that self-help denied them. It was morally unacceptable to let people suffer under the delusion that you were, by not offering them succour and support, helping them. The New Liberalists rejected the cornerstone ideal that society was a collection of separate beings, and instead decided that it was more an organic mass of different living cells. These cell were distinct, but all worked with each other, and in relation to each other. Society had a value greater than the collected sum of its parts.
The differing views of New and Old Liberalism clashed over several key issues, one of them being tax. While the Old Liberalists took the stance that it was every man’s right to spend his money how he liked, with taxes as low as possible, the New Liberals said that low taxes should be dispensed with, to pay for the upkeep of the poorer ends of society.
It is important, however, not to separate the two concepts that much. There were several continuities that ran through the policies of both areas of Liberalism, which meant they were both Liberal ideas, rather than moving into other areas of the political spectrum. Both groups separated ‘deserving’ individuals from the ‘undeserving’. Both thought it better that contributions for social services were received voluntarily, rather than raised by the government. Most crucially, however, both camps were set on the aim of achieving the aim of providing those in the working class the opportunity of having a middle class way of life. It was the way this was to be achieved that the difference is to be found. It could be said that the change in the liberal party was one of method, rather than objective.
To decide quite how ‘new’ the Liberal Social reforms were once they got into power, each reform must be looked at separately. It is important to separate two distinct units of time though: 1906-1908, and 1908-1914. In 1908, Henry Campbell-Bannerman had to stand down as Liberal leader due to ill health. Here, the impetus changed.
The first major act passed was the Trade Disputes Act, of 1906. This reversed the earlier Taff Vale judgement, allowing peaceful industrial action. This cannot be said to be that massive a change to society, as it was merely reinstating a previous state. However, it does demonstrate intent, which alone is fairly vital. The Workmen’s Compensation Act was more noteworthy, however, extending compensation for injury at work to 6 million worker, and introducing a more thorough covering of all the causes of bad health at work, such as disease. Not only did this provide the obvious benefits, it also had the knock on effect of dramatically increasing the quality of nationwide working conditions.
There were three acts passed in the 06-08 period dealing with the welfare of children. Two of them, The Education (Provision of Meals) Act, 1906, and The Education (Administrative Procedures) Act, 1907 mainly dealt with what the local education system could offer its pupils in terms of social support. The first one allowed schools to provide meals for malnourished children, and the second allowed for medical inspections of children. While these were both positive steps, it is telling that neither reform had to be taken up by the local authorities, and thus they forced little un-voluntary social change.
The third act dealing with children, however, The Children’s Act, 1908, was a far grander step, focusing on child neglect and abuse. It forbade children from entering pubs, set up juvenile courts and remand homes, ending the imprisonment of children under the age of 14, and stopped them buying cigarettes. This had a major impact on society, changing the way children were viewed, and improving conditions for them nation wide.
A few miscellaneous other acts were passed, such as the Probation Act, which established probation as an alternative to prison, and the Merchant Shipping Act, which set up basic legal conditions aboard ships for seamen, and forced foreign vessels who wanted to dock in British ports to adopt the same standards. While these were obviously not Old Liberal reforms, they were not as far a push as some people would have wanted.
The final major change in this time period was the promise of Old Age Pensions. They were small, and not many pensioners were entitled to them, but this was quite defiantly a New Liberal concept. It connected completely with the idea of helping those members of society who cannot help themselves.
It is obvious from looking at the reforms of this period that while Campbell-Bannerman was in charge, New Liberalism had less effect on the Liberal government than could be hoped for. Thos reforms that were obviously New Liberalist were not as large as could be expect if the New Liberals were in complete control, and many of them seemed to make little difference at all to the attitude of the country. This was all to change after 1908, however, when Asquith took over, and later on, when Lloyd-George presented the People’s Budget.
It should be noted that all the reforms passed in this period are results of the work of two men, Lloyd-George and Churchill. The Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers passed them, but they were the only two ministers who suggested reforms.
The People’s Budget was an absolutely crucial turning point in New Liberalism. The budget imposed a new ‘supertax’ on the income of the rich, a land tax, a road tax, alcohol and tobacco duties, and changed the rate of income tax, reducing it for lower incomes, and raising it for higher incomes. This system fully identified with the New Liberalistic taxing ideals, as all the new cash flow bought to the government went towards old age pensions, among other things.
This budget broke the mould, and when finally passed, after having been rejected by the Chamber of Lords, it prepared the way for new, other, groundbreaking reforms.
The Old Age Pensions Act bought the pension scheme proposed earlier into reality, giving pensioners a means to live on for the first time. The Labour Exchanges Act, 1909, proposed by Churchill, set up Job Centres, making it much, much easier for the unemployed to find work. The Trade Board act followed this up, setting a minimum wage for certain industries where ‘sweating’ was rife.
Two of the more interesting reforms were the Parliament Act, and the establishment of payment for MPs. Both of these held more profound consequences for the parliamentary system than for the nation as a whole. The first, set up after the attempts to stop the People’s Budget by the Lords, made it a rule that the House of Lords could only delay money bills, rather than reject them outright. This meant that budgets could be passed without any support at all from the Lords. The establishment of a wage for MPs had the effect of opening parliament to those who couldn’t afford to support themselves otherwise, allowing more working class people to attempt to run for office.
By far the most famous reform passed during this period, however, was the National Insurance Act, in 1911. This set up two separate forms of insurance for workers in certain industries nationwide. The first, Health Insurance, worked by taking two pence from the weekly the wage of every worker. The employer then added three pence and the government another two. The second form of insurance, unemployment insurance, worked the same way. This was a very New Liberal idea, and it provided a ‘safety net’ for those who couldn’t work, due to injury or plain misfortune.
The Miner’s Minimum Wage Act, 1912, and the Trade Union Act, 1913, were both aimed at correcting previous injustices against the miners, and perhaps trying to draw their support. This was one of the key industries in Britain, and one where there were astonishingly bad conditions for the workers involved.
It is obvious from looking over these acts that New Liberalism had thoroughly taken hold of the government by this point. There was now a far greater amount of support for those at the poorer end of the British social scale. The reforms were revolutionary, and were so effective that many of them still exist today in some form. New Liberalism, while it had many similarities to Old Liberalism, was defiantly a different beast, and one that forwarded the living conditions of the poorest of the poor in Britain to a more secure, pleasant time.