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Essay on Social Citizenship Rights in Britain

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Outline the liberal welfare reforms of the early 20th century and assess the extent to which they marked the beginnings of social citizenship rights in Britain.

Nineteenth-century Britain had a lack of citizenship rights for its citizens. The 1906 election saw the liberal government introduce social reforms which saw these rights increase. The government under old liberal Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman moved away from the ‘laissez-faire' attitude due to the rise of the labor party which led to the fear of communism and to help those who were poor and not able to help themselves, these were labeled as the deserving poor who saw outdoor relief in their own home from philanthropic agencies. The government reforms focus on the young, the old, the sick and the unemployed, as these were seen to be the groups that were most deserving of help. The United Kingdom was rich and powerful due to the industrial revolution, this however led to health issues that would question national security and the citizen's ability to work, this meant that citizens were dependent on the government to improve their rights so their ability to work was improved. This essay will show that the liberal welfare reforms of the early 20th century were successful, to some extent, of the beginning of better social citizenship rights in Britain.

In 1905, the liberals introduced the Aliens Act which was Britain's first immigration control (Williams, 2003). The campaigns were aimed at Jewish refugees which led to ‘virulent anti-Semitism and imperialist chauvinism'(Williams, 2003), the welfare agencies and philanthropic agencies were expected to act as the police in catching illegal immigrants, this shows that the citizenship rights of people migrating or seeking asylum into Britain was poor, after Old Liberal Campbell- Bannerman died in 1908, it opened doors for new ‘interventionalist ideas' from new liberals such as Asquith, who succeeded him, as well as Lloyd George and Churchill. Manning (2003) states 'Winston Churchill argues in favor of welfare institutions as a buttress against the attractions of socialist ideas, the rise of the labor party was a fear for the liberals as in 1906 they were competing for the same seats and the democratic socialist party, led by Keir Hardie would make the proletariat aware of their exploitation by the bourgeoisie which would lead to a communist revolution. This makes it apparent that reforms were passed by old liberals due to political pragmatism as the lack of mention of reforms in their 1906 manifesto means that the close result of the election scared the liberals into passing reforms. Campbell- Bannerman saw liberalism as standing for individual freedom which would mean the least involvement from the government. Historian Peter Taylor-Gooby (2003) shows that 'individual rights are closely linked to notions of social justice which shows that welfare is justified to improve the citizenship rights so this explains why rights were poor under old liberalism compared to the 'more sympathetic attitude towards intervention by the state' (Simpson, 2000)by the new liberals under Asquith.

The health problems in Britain became clear after the Boer War started in South Africa, Britain relied on volunteer recruits to swell the ranks, however, 25% of volunteers were rejected as they were physically unfit due to malnutrition. The government tackled this by tackling the most vulnerable in society- the young so that they would grow to be healthy and able to fight if called upon for any wars in the future. So in 1906, the government introduced the Education (provisional of meals) Act, this insured that free school meals were provided by local authorities to make sure that children were eating throughout the day meaning they were focused to learn, the school meals provided 9 million meals in 1910 and 14 million in 1914 (Moore, 2011), showing that it was vastly used and successful, however in 1914, only 50% of local authorities were still not providing school meals (The National Archives, n.d.), it was clear that children in authorities that did provide meals had started to become a healthier weight but over the school holidays would lose weight and become malnourished again. This was followed by the Administrative act in 1907, which introduced medical inspections for school children as parents would send their children to school in ‘verminous conditions', however, medical inspections did very little to solve any problems they uncovered as free medical treatments were not available until 1912, so the education authorities largely ignored the issues that were discovered. Historian A.J.P Taylor viewed this as 'broadly speaking the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizens alone' (, 2010), this was shown to highlight the lack of universal help, however, this shows to improve the rights of children, this is the long term would help those in Britain in the long term but at that time only helped children, which does not help improve the citizenship rights of adults in Britain. This shows that the government’s attempt to improve citizenship rights for those in Britain, it was fairly successful as it targeted the rights of children but did very little to help adults who were already in poverty, that needed improved rights to improve their quality of life.

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In 1908, the Old Age Pension Act was introduced this saw people over 70 with an annual income of less than £21 (Thurley, 2008), receiving a pension of five shillings per week. This saw 1 million people receiving a pension by 1914 (Thurley, 2008), however, Seebohm Rowntree had set the poverty line at 35 pence and with pensioners only gaining the equivalent of 25 pence a week (Thurley, 2008), so was not enough to help the elderly out of poverty, so was poor at improving the citizenship rights of the elderly. In poorer areas, the life expectancy was as low as 45 (, 2015), so many people did not reach the life expectancy age of 70 to be eligible for the pension, therefore, it did very little to improve the citizenship rights of those in Britain. There were many other factors that led to a person being considered ineligible such as they were not to have been imprisoned in the last 10 years (Thurley, 2008) and had to have had lived in Britain for over 20 years (Thurley, 2008), along with the fact that many pensioners could not prove their age as they have no birth certificate. Overall, this shows that mainly British citizens needed financial help before the age of 70, so they pension, while being of some help did not improve the citizenship rights of older people within society.

In addition to helping the young and old, the liberals introduced the National Insurance Act (Part 1) in 1911 to help the sick. This act provided compulsory health insurance for workers earning less than £160 annually as many of the poor could not afford healthcare, the scheme meant that the employee paid 4d, the employer paid 3d and the state paid 2d (, 1912), this meant if an employee was sick, they were paid 10 shillings a week for 13 weeks then 5 shillings for 13 weeks (, 1912). Residents who were not British received a lower benefit under this act despite paying in the same as British citizens which shows that the social citizenship rights for British citizenship rights were higher than the rights of non-British citizens. Waqar Ahmad and Gary Craig (2003) say that 'institutions built on white British, Judaeo-Christian values and a racist ideology may well discriminate against individuals and groups of minority ethnic background through the application of routine procedures' this shows that there was a clear level of racism so there was a lack of citizenship rights for refugees and migrants compared to white British born citizens. There was also no provision for the workers' family, so could not get help if a family member was ill, this reaffirms the idea that citizenship is gendered as these provisions were aimed at the working-class males that needed it and not the women in the family. Many workers also objected to the compulsory payments as they could not opt-out of the scheme. The National Insurance Act (part 1) was legislation that attempted to tackle poverty but did little to improve citizenship rights as it shows the underlying sexism and racism from the liberal government with the introduction of this reform.

The liberals also introduced the Labour Exchanges Act in 1909. These were offices set up to help the unemployed find work, by 1913 there were 430 Labour Exchanges which led to 3000 people a day being provided with work by 1913, however, it was not compulsory for employers to register their vacancies meaning that positions were not always readily available, showing that the government tried to improve citizenship rights but was out of their control at implementing them. They also introduced part 2 of the National Insurance Act, which saw an injured worker who had lost their job receiving 7 shillings a week for 15 weeks, so when working the employee would pay 2.5d a week, employers paid in 2d and the state paid 3d, however, the insurance was only available in 7 trades: shipbuilding, building, sawmilling, construction, iron foundering, construction of vehicles and mechanical engineering, and was only provided for a limited time depending on the contributions meaning that when long term unemployment rates increased after world war one, the system broke down as the scheme was taking in less money than they were paying out. Overall showing that these acts were brought in to tackle poverty for those who were unemployed but did not help improve the citizenship rights in Britain as it was focused on only 7 trades as well as not being able to implement help for those looking for work as it was up to the employers to register work and not the government.

The emergence of the welfare state was characterized as a unilinear progression from the ‘darkness' of the nineteenth-century Poor Law' (Gladstone, 2003), this shows that the liberals introducing welfare reforms was the start of the movement towards improved citizenship rights for all of those in Britain, however, the real impact was not until the welfare state was established in the 1940s by Labour as there were flaws in the liberal reforms. The switch from classic liberalism to modern liberalism was impertinent in the move towards welfare reforms to introduce improved citizenship rights within Britain, along with Booth and Rowntree's research which showed that many people could not help themselves as their rights were poor and they could not get themselves out of poverty so needed improved rights or help from the government to improve their value of life. Targeting the rights of children was important for improving the rights of everyone in the future as the children would be healthy and focused enough to get a good education leading to a good job, however at the time this excluded adults who needed their rights improved, they were unable to help themselves at the time and didn't see help from the reforms during the start of the welfare reforms. The Pension Act was unable to improve the rights of the elderly as their income was less than the cost of living as well as the high age of 70 meant that most citizens didn't reach this age to receive help. The National Insurance Act provided help for the sick but this was largely made to improve the rights of working-class males and not the women who were ‘dependent' on these men to provide, showing that the citizenship rights of women were not considered, and the institutionalized racism of paying out less to Non-British citizens despite paying in the same amount as British citizens. The second part of the National Insurance Act only focussed on a certain trades to improve their rights but missed out a large percentage of the rest of the public, showing that all of these reforms showed the beginning of better social citizenship rights in Britain, however, were very flawed in their application to the public so were not comprehensively improving the citizenship rights of those living in Britain at the start of the 20th century.

  1. Moore, A. (2011). School Meals Act 1906. [online] Intriguing History. Available at: [Accessed 20 Feb. 2019].
  2. The National Archives. (n.d.). School dinners - The National Archives. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Feb. 2019].
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