From New Liberals to Neo-Liberals
By David Bardsley
In January 1906, a Liberal government was elected by a landslide with a parliamentary majority of 125 seats after 11 previous years of Conservative rule. The party contained many advocates of ‘New Liberalism’, which was influenced by social studies conducted by figures such as Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth which revealed the extent of poverty in industrial towns and cities around Britain: around a third of the entire population was living in dangerously deprived conditions through no fault of their own.
This radical outlook didn’t fit with the Conservative view that those in poverty deserved to be so as they were lazy, unable to utilise the money that they did have wisely, and were, more often than not, alcoholics. Thankfully, the New Liberals recognised the need for government action to eradicate this state of affairs, and David Lloyd George’s 1909 People’s Budget, despite the best efforts of the aristocratic House of Lords, introduced a series of welfare reforms which laid the foundations of the modern welfare state, while helping to debunk the myth of the ‘undeserving poor’.
The biggest change of all was the introduction of old age pensions, as previously the elderly were forced to rely on charitable support from their families and other groups or face the Dickensian prospect of the dreaded workhouse. In addition, unemployment and sickness benefits were established, and labour exchanges (the first iteration of the job centre) were created. The principle of a contributory social insurance system was accepted and from this point in history Britain revelled in a socialist utopia with its citizens protected from poverty and provided with employment for ever more.
Of course, that last sentence is untrue, however much it may be hoped that this is not the case. Thatcher’s conservative government of the 1980s began the dismantling of the welfare state, which had been bolstered by Labour’s implementation of the Beveridge Report post WWII, and arguably the current Tory led government are doing an even better job of doing so, while the party which did so much to initiate these positive strides are in power for the first time since the Lloyd George era but are incapable of anything other than watching on as Cameron & Co.’s cruelty wreaks havoc with society’s most disadvantaged. (Yes Maggie, there is such a thing).
In Chancellor Gideon Osborne’s autumn statement, it was announced that benefit claimants would have their payments increased by just 1%. To be fair to the Lib Dems, if it wasn’t for their presence in government, it would be likely that benefits would not be rising at all, but this still represents a real terms cut, at the same time that Britain’s millionaires have been given a £107,000 discount on their yearly tax bill. Dave and Gideon can’t even peddle the old argument that benefit claimants are bone idle scroungers, as it transpires that 6 out of 10 of those affected by the changes are in employment, but still rely on the state for support due to inadequate wages.
The media assertion that it would be a bold move for Labour leader Ed Miliband to oppose and vote against the 1% increase reveals just how deeply the neo-Liberal economic consensus is entrenched and it is to be hoped that Miliband and his colleagues can form an alternative voice in these times of crisis and deprivation. However, Miliband’s continued use of language such as “strivers” and “scroungers” does nothing to combat the regrettably effective Tory tactic of turning the working class against each other.
Once again, the myth of the ‘undeserving poor’ is alive and well in British society.