External Reasons for the Liberal Reforms Fear of Britain’s place in the world. Social Darwinism At the end of the 19th century there was an idea of Social Darwinism. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his theory that stronger species survive while weaker ones die out. This had been perverted into the idea that strong societies will survive while weaker ones will die out. It showed itself in two ways – our ability to protect ourselves and our Empire and our ability to compete industrially in peacetime.
The Boer War that ended in 1902 had shown up in horrifying detail the poor state of health of British soldiers while at the same time others were concerned that in the economic battle with rivals like Germany and the USA, Britain’s workers were insufficiently energetic and educated.
The Boer War and National Security The greatest motive for reform was the poor physical condition of recruits for the Boer War that brought the scale of poverty unearthed by Booth and Rowntree to the surface, and showed the failure of a Laissez faire non-interventionist state.
The Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century sent warnings that Britain’s Imperial supremacy could be in danger of disintegrating due to the poor physical condition of a large number of recruits who were deemed unfit for service. Without this, the horrors of poverty that an industrialised non–interventionist state had created, it would have been unlikely that reform would have played such a major role in Liberal politics of the years 1906–1914.
In 1899 war had broken out between the powerful British Empire and the Boer Republics in South Africa. The Boers were descended from Dutch settlers who had become farmers. The British thought that the war would be over quickly but Boer forces proved to be well trained and well led. The war dragged on for three years. Eventually, Britain used 400,000 troops to defeat Boer forces that never totalled more than 35,000 in the field. The war was a great shock to British confidence. In Britain people searched for answers as to why it had taken three years for professional soldiers to defeat a force of Boer farmers. Details emerged from army recruiting centres which suggested that a high proportion of volunteers had been rejected as being unfit for service.
When the Boer War started in 1899 the army had needed to expand rapidly and volunteers rushed to join up. Initial ideas suggested that at least 25% of recruits were unfit for service. Hyndeman, the Marxist Social Democrat, claimed that the figure could be as high as 50% in urban areas. The public conscience was shocked by the fact that so many of these recruits failed to meet the army’s standards of height, weight and eyesight, a rejection rate of about 1 in 3. In Manchester 8,000 out of the 11,000 men who volunteered for the army had to be rejected as physically unsuitable at once; only 1200 were eventually accepted. In 1903 Major general Sir Frederick Maurice claimed that only two out of five enlisted men remained fit for service after two years. This, he stressed was not a reflection on the hardships of army life but on the level of unfitness within the population.
If men of military age were so unfit for service, the government worried about Britain’s future ability to defend itself against a stronger enemy, especially an increasingly militaristic Germany who was after their own ‘place in the sun.’ Thus, the Boer War statistics caused great concern and prompted many people to support reform out of patriotism. If Britain was to remain a powerful military force in the world then the health of its children had to be improved.
Importantly, the Boer War was further evidence that Britain was not doing enough to help the poorer in society. The importance of the Boer War is huge according to the historian Eric Evans:
“Arguably, the single most important precondition for the spate of social reforms between 1905 and 1914 was the fear of the consequences of an unfit and debilitated population.”
As a result, the government set up the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration which published its findings in 1904. It made several suggestions. An improvement in the standard of food and drink, regulations on overcrowding and air pollution, training of schoolgirls in cookery and hygiene, attention to infant welfare, the provision of meals for underfed children and the medical inspection of all children.
This implied an unfit workforce as well as an unfit army. No wonder the British Army performed so badly in South Africa and other countries were overtaking Britain in economic growth. Many people at the time blamed the conditions in Britain’s towns for producing an unfit population.
At a time when other countries were building up their armed forces, Britain seemed potentially weak. The founder of the Boy Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell, who was one of the Boer War heroes, warned that ‘recent reports on the deterioration of our race ought to act as a warning to be taken in time before it goes too far. One cause which contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire was the fact the soldiers fell away from the standards of their forefathers in bodily strength. The lack of military efficiency in the battlefield and the physical inadequacies of the male populace led to the term ‘national efficiency’ becoming part of the political language.
National Efficiency Towards the end of the 19th century concerns were increasingly expressed regarding the ‘efficiency’ of the British population. In the middle of the 19th century Britain was clearly the world’s foremost economic power and if it was to remain so its workforce would have to be at least as fit as its competitors.
Britain had lost its position as the predominant industrial power and was facing serious competition from new industrial nations such as Germany leading to a fear that if the workforce was not operating at peak efficiency, Britain would fall further behind. The success of such foreign economies in catching up with Britain, and in some cases overtaking her, suggested that the British work force was inferior to her rivals. This was reflected in concern at the slower growth of the economy and the relative decline in industrial production compared with Germany and the USA. This can be shown by comparing Britain’s world trade figures with Germany.
Equally, if Britain was not to fall further then the workforce would have to be at least as fit as that of her competitors. Advocates of National Efficiency supported state intervention in the field of welfare. The idea of national efficiency became part of the language of the time and many found it reasonable to express their support for social measures in such terms. Social reform would make for a healthy population, which was more efficient as a workforce and as soldiers.
There was widespread concern about the ‘physical deficiency‘ of the county’s people and many argued that having so many unhealthy members of society was a waste of the country’s resources in a period where it was under pressure from foreign competitors. Because of the higher fertility rates by the poor, it was feared that the ‘national stock’ would continue to deteriorate. Social action to improve the health and welfare of the disadvantaged was therefore in the national interest by providing a people who could produce more and fight harder. In 1905 a group of experts reported ‘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.
This linked in to National Security as Britain was engaged in a naval race with Germany while France and Russia were also building new Dreadnoughts. If Britain could not build ships as fast as the opposition the country would soon become vulnerable to attack. Also the growth of highly mobile European armies was dependent on the transport and armaments industry.
Politicians such as Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Rosebery expressed this concern. It was argued that national efficiency and Imperial strength required a better educated and healthier population.
Finally, the ideas of National Efficiency came to affect the government itself. There was feeling that it was run by amateurs who were incompetent in the fields of administration and incapable of generating social policy. The Treasury, where conservative thinking kept a tight rein on the purse strings also received criticism for not supporting new interventionist ideas. It was suggested that more experts and businessmen become involved in government to streamline the system and make it more efficient. It also suggested military training for all men.
The threat of Germany It was believed that if the health and educational standards of Britain’s workers got worse then Britain’s position as a strong industrial power would be further threatened. With the mishaps of the Boer War and a decline in the British economy and industry (taken over by Germany and America) it was clear that Britain was weak compared to its European neighbour, Germany. Although ideas of Social Darwinism were only theories a very real potential enemy could be found. Germany had emerged as an economic rival to Britain and, increasingly, was also being seen as a military rival. Should we have to fight them it seemed that they might gain a disproportionate advantage through their state interventionist social policy. The alliance system which would bring Britain into the First World War was largely complete, the naval arms race had started and the fear that Germany might have an advantage in the health of its population also spurred the Government to look at a social welfare programme. Bismarck, the German Chancellor, had introduced limited social reforms in Germany in the 1880s. This network of social insurance, the compulsory sickness and accident insurance, old age pensions and highly organised educational system were far in advance of anything Britain had to offer. If a main competitor could afford to do it why could Britain not do likewise?
This point was not lost on Churchill when he said in a letter to Asquith in December 1908 ‘’There is a tremendous policy in social organisation. The need is urgent and the moment ripe. Germany, with a harder climate and far less accumulated wealth has managed to establish tolerable basic conditions for her people. She is organised not only for war, but for peace. We are organised for nothing except party politics.
Therefore, questions had to be asked about how Germany had overtaken Britain economically, industrially and militarily. It became obvious that the Germans were more prosperous due to their commitment to ‘national efficiency.’ Britain for all her ‘personal liberty’, boasted of nothing that could rival Germany’s industrial, economic and military dominance and this provided politicians in Britain with evidence that state intervention had great benefits in formulating an efficient nation.
The resentment and fear from British statesmen, the need to secure Britain’s imperial position, the need to re-establish a physically fit army for any future conflict, the need to produce young healthy children to breed national efficiency for future generations, the proof that they were being overshadowed by Germany industrially, economically and militarily by 1906 and the clear evidence from the German model to the benefits of adopting Bismarck’s social policy were strong motives for the unusual burst of activity by the Liberal Government of 1906 – 1914.
Conclusion It is clear that reform in Edwardian Britain was not just the outcome of one event. There were many motives that brought social reform to the top of Liberal policy between 1906-1914 such as the findings of Booth and Rowntree, the decline of British industry and economy, the mishaps of the Boer War, the rise of Germany, the threat of Labour especially from 1909, and the development of “New Liberalism’’. These motives contributed to the formation of social policy in Britain, It was the culmination of these most important motives that led to the last Liberal Government being the developers of social reform.