Skivers versus strivers: The roots of the welfare state

Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, 1915 Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, 1915

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The social reforms of the 1906 Liberal government, regarded as the foundation of the modern welfare state, were introduced by the party as a way to gain votes.

The then chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, hoped to see an end to poverty and a break from the stigma and inhumanity of the Poor Law.

The Liberal reforms tackled a range of pressing social issues from poor education, housing, health and transport, aiming to help the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Start Quote

Taffy was a Welshman, taffy was a thief”

End Quote Workers' chant in response to introduction of national insurance

During his People's Budget speech in 1909, Lloyd George said: "This is a war budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.

"I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests."

Critics were opposed to the government interfering in people's lives and disagreed with the costs of the reforms. Some workers chanted "Taffy was a Welshman, taffy was a thief" in response to Lloyd George's introduction of national insurance payments.

While these measures were limited, they marked a move from laissez-faire politics towards the state having a more active role in the lives of individuals.

So why, when it was previously seen as a popular vote-winner, is welfare now seen as such a divisive issue? The skivers versus strivers rhetoric of today echoes Victorian attitudes of the 'deserving and undeserving' poor, which Lloyd George sought to overcome.

The roots of reform

The Liberal Party introduced the welfare reforms, despite them not being a key election message during the 1906 election campaign.

The Labour Party, re-named in 1906, had growing support and posed a direct threat to the Liberals. Labour won 42 seats in the election of 1910, forcing the Liberals, who had lost their majority, to work with them. Welfare reforms helped attract the working vote and distinguish the Liberal Party from the Labour and Socialist parties.

Reforms

  • Free school meals introduced in 1906, made compulsory in 1914
  • Increased free scholarships in secondary schools in 1907, with fees paid by local authorities
  • Children and Young Persons Act (1908) introduced regulations against child cruelty and neglect
  • Old Age Pensions Act (1908) introduced pensions for over 70s
  • Labour exchanges set up in 1909
  • National Health Insurance Act (1911) gave access to medical treatment, sick pay and unemployment benefits

Welfare reforms also made steps towards deterring militant trade unionism, following the growth of unions and strikes from 1910-12.

The exposure of a sick and unfit army during the Boer Wars had revealed the inefficiency of the country. When war was declared in 1899, two thirds of volunteers were deemed to be in poor health.

The investigations of Seebohm Rowntree (published 1901) and Charles Booth (reports published from 1889-1903) provided a clearer understanding of poverty and the shortcomings of the existing poor relief system.

Winston Churchill described how Rowntree's accounts of living conditions in York "made his hair stand on end".

These reports challenged the view of poverty as the result of moral weakness or idleness, instead arguing that old age and illness were the main causes of poverty.

However, welfare reform was not a universally popular solution. As a classical Liberal, Harold Cox, MP for Preston 1906-09, opposed the measures as infringements on the free market and considered them to be "eroding freedom". His book Socialism in the House of Commons (1907) warned against the undermining of individual responsibility.

FW Hirst, the Liberal journalist and editor of The Economist, also opposed the reforms and the welfare state in general.

Some workers objected to paying 4d per week to the national insurance contributions, to the extent that a rally was organised by domestic servants at the Albert Hall on 29 November 1911.

Lloyd George responded to this criticism with the phrase "Nine pence for four pence" to indicate that workers' contributions were being topped up by employers and the government.

Whilst the Liberal legislation constituted one of the most ambitious social reform programmes, setting a foundation for the modern welfare state, it still only made limited advances on tackling the problem of poverty.

Unemployment benefits were only paid to selected trades and not extended to employees' families, pensions were inadequate and free school meals were not compulsory.

Although limited, the improvements in provisions for the sick, the elderly and children brought about by the reforms did result in a reduction in poverty.

By 1914, the total number of paupers had dropped to 748,019, compared to 916,377 in 1910.

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