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Home > History > Liberal government 1906 to 1914 > Motives of Liberal reforms


Motives of Liberal reforms

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The need for reform


David Lloyd George speaking in parliament.

Watch our motion comic animation about the poverty reforms of the 19th century.

During the late nineteenth century the British government, under the Liberal party, acted according to the principle of laissez faire. Individuals were solely responsible for their own lives and welfare. The government did not accept responsibility for the poverty and hardship that existed among its citizens. A popular point of view at the time was that poverty was caused by idleness, drunkenness and other such moral weaknesses on the part of the working classes. The poor were seen by the wealthy as an unfortunate but inevitable part of society.

Changing attitudes

At the dawn of the twentieth century there were no old age pensions, unemployment benefits or family allowances. If the main wage-earner died or could not work, a whole family could be plunged into terrible poverty. The state would not interfere.

During this period, the accepted role of the government was very limited. It was simply expected to:

  • maintain law and order
  • protect the country from invasion

Two social surveys were published that not only shocked the British public but changed popular opinion on the causes of poverty. They helped pave the way for a whole range of government-led welfare reforms.

Independently of each other, two wealthy businessmen, Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, sponsored major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty in British cities.

Booth and Rowntree's findings agreed on two key points:

  • up to 30% of the population of the cities were living in or below poverty levels
  • the conditions were such that people could not pull themselves out of poverty by their own actions alone. Booth and Rowntree both identified the main causes of poverty as being illness, unemployment and age - both the very young and the old were at risk of poverty

It began to be recognised that the government had a role to play. To do this, political and social reforms were necessary.

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