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BRITISH POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT SINCE 1900 NEW LIBERALISM AND THE 1905-14 GOVERNMENTS What had the Liberal government achieved by 1914?
This essay will attempt to measure the achievements of the Liberal government between 1905 and 1914, by which is meant both legislative measures and any non-legislative impact which may have been the result of a shifting of the political narrative. Legislative achievements, be they the introduction of Old Aged Pensions in 1908 or the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act, cannot be credited solely to Asquith's government; they were the result of more than a generation's development of progressive political thought which reached its apogee during the period of our examination. Timing of reform, as well as its detail, will also be examined, and understanding the motives of those who sought to resist reform is intrinsic to our comprehension of the contemporary political and social climate. Finally, we will examine the validity of Dangerfield's claim that the Liberals, with each legislative and electoral advance, accelerated the transition to class-based politics and sowed the seeds for their own destruction at the hands of the Labour party. The lineage of the Liberal social reforms of the early twentieth century can be traced back to the 1890s and earlier. Clarke argues that, following the Liberal's election defeats in 1895 and 1900, the party had exhausted 'the political capital of Gladstonian Liberalism', subsequently launching 'New Liberalism' as an attempt to re-engage working class voters1. The party adopted much radical thinking into its manifesto, and not without dissent from those members who clung to laissez faire Liberal attitudes. New Liberalism meant responding with legislation to the plight of the poor working class; this represented a break from the late 18th century view that humanitarian and philanthropic efforts were sufficient to ameliorate social problems2. Radical Liberals argued that the party should focus on the creation of better moral and physical surroundings for the mass of the citizenry; this meant a bigger State, with all that entailed fiscally and electorally. It was recognised that, following the Second Reform Act, vast electoral power was in the hands of the working class; New Liberalism was an attempt to capture this vote, whilst genuinely improving welfare. It sought not to be a purely class movement, and avoided redistributive policies that simply involved the transferring of wealth from the rich to the poor, although this was ultimately what was required. Before the party's legislative goals could be achieved a wide spectrum of resistance had to be tackled. Whilst the Lords and Conservatives could be politically outmanoeuvred, the middle and working classes, as well as the Irish Nationalists and elements of the machinery of State, needed convincing that social reform was both desirable and practical. Prior to its introduction, the working class was largely hostile to the idea of social reform. They were dissuaded by the casuistic 18th century doctrine of 'self-help', as well as a fear of the State as an institution of the wealthy. Such scepticism was not entirely unjustified, and Joseph Chamberlain had argued at the end of the 18th century that limited social concessions should be made to maintain the existing social and political order and stay the advance of the Labour party. Additionally, working class objections to the administration of the Poor Law, compulsory education, national insurance, and local authority housing policies3 had to be overcome. The middle-classes had little enthusiasm for the idea of social reform, particularly as the weight would fall on their shoulders, and the Liberals sought to assuage their fears and bridge the gap in interest. Tax policy was formulated with the middle-class in mind, and an argument was made for the Nation's economic health being dependent on the distribution as well as production of wealth. Major social reforms could only be built upon a solid fiscal foundation, and the 1909 People's Budget aimed to lay this; the overcoming of intense resistance to the budget, and the subsequent constitutional precedent set, represents among the most significant achievement of the Liberal
1 Lancashire and the New Liberalism: P.F. Clarke 2 The New Liberalism: N. Freeden 3 The Working Class and State Welfare, 18801914: P. Thane
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