The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism: The Politics of Social Reform in Britain, 1870-1900

The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism: The Politics of Social Reform in Britain, 1870-1900

The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism: The Politics of Social Reform in Britain, 1870-1900

The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism: The Politics of Social Reform in Britain, 1870-1900


The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism examines the question of where to locate the ideological break between classical liberalism and the underlying principles of the modern Welfare State. While most historians of 19th century Britain argue that such a shift occurred prior to 1900, Haggard challenges the contention that classical liberalism had been so undermined by this point that the modern Welfare State was largely inevitable. He considers the public discussion of progress, poverty, charity, socialism, and social reform, and he concludes that the vast majority of the Victorian middle and upper classes remained wedded to the tenets of classical liberalism up to the close of the century.

In contrast to traditional characterizations, Haggard argues that progress, individualism, and character continued to resonate within Victorian society throughout the late Victorian period. Private philanthropy grew increasingly active as a remedy to urban poverty. The London Socialist movement, the New Unionism, the Independent Labour Party, and the New Liberalism, each proponents of socialistic reforms, found themselves marginalized politically. The key to the social debates of the day was the concept of the deserving versus the undeserving poor. Although the deserving might expect some private or public aid, the undeserving were to be punished for their lack of character. Until this notion was overturned, the Welfare State would remain outside the realm of practical politics.


The following analysis of British social theory addresses the issue of where to locate the fundamental ideological break between the small-government liberalism of the past and the principles which underlie the modern Welfare State. The common view among historians of nineteenth-century Britain is that such a shift occurred prior to 1900. Liberal political thought is most often seen as an uncomfortable—although perhaps necessary—interlude, growing out of the Industrial Revolution and, gradually, into the twentieth-century Welfare State. While providing a viable political alternative for its time, nineteenth-century liberalism existed only upon sufferance. Once British public opinion possessed the imagination, will, and political power to demand a massive expansion of the social services provided by the State, classical liberalism was doomed. Consequently, the only question worth pondering is where to place the “origins” of the Welfare State prior to 1900.

A handful of historians locate the first stirring of the Welfare State in the distant past—following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, with the passage of the Statute of Artificers in 1563, or upon the establishment of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601. A larger, but still small, number of historians argue that the Welfare State was conceived during the first half of the nineteenth century. For them, the industrial, communications, and bureaucratic “revolutions” which occurred in Britain between 1750 and 1850 provided the State with both the incentive and the means to extend its protection of the poorest, most vulnerable

See Karl Schweinitz, England's Road to Social Security (London, 1943); J.R.T.
Hughes, “Henry Mayhew's London,” Journal of Economic History 1969 29 (3): 526-36; and
Maurice Bruce, ed., The Rise of the Welfare State: English Social Policy, 1601–1971
(London, 1973).

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