The Approach of the British Government Towards Unemployment at the Turn of the 18th Century: How Does This Compare With Its Attitude to Unemployment at the Beginning of the Ninteenth Century?

AT the beginning of the 1800s, the British Isles had become deeply embroiled in a bitter war with her French neighbours and Napoleon had introduced what was later to become known as the Continental  Blockade. This took the form of a French fleet patrolling the offshore waters around Portsmouth and Southampton, designed to prevent both imports and exports from either leaving or arriving at the British coast, although Britain was still secretly trading in armaments with her French enemies.

As a result of this sustained campaign of economic interference, British trade – particularly the cotton and textile industries – began to experience dislocation and massive financial losses as overseas customers began to look elsewhere for more reliable trading partners. The problems caused by Napoleon’s blockade led to Britain losing her trading position in the international economic marketplace, the importation of agricultural and industrial goods, and a rise in the number of people out of work – with many of the newly-dispossessed workers being forced to join the Army and fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Needless to say, when the war finally came to an end in 1815, 120,000 soldiers were made unemployed and the country went through a serious depression. In the 1820s the situation worsened and many agricultural labourers began to look upon the spread of machine technology as a major cause of unemployment, and when between three and four million handloom weavers lost their jobs through technological displacement this feeling eventually culminated in the rise of the Luddites. Another major economic factor affecting Britain at the time was the amount of money she owed to the usurious banking houses for financing the cost of the war effort against Napoleon.

From approximately 1815 until 1837, unemployment became long-term and social instability began to take its toll on the British working classes. In the past unemployment had only been very temporary, and this was usually due to the fact that many people were employed on a seasonal basis. The government at this time was of the new laissez-faire variety and considered unemployment to be typically endemic among the lower classes and therefore self-inflicted, rather than attribute it to market forces. In other words, there was a general feeling that the individual was responsible for his or her own welfare and that it was not the government’s job to interfere.

This attitude towards the less fortunate members of society conveniently lifted the weight of social responsibility from the government’s shoulders and forced the unemployed to seek assistance from either the various charitable organisations in existence at the time, or from sympathetic Christians. In the previous century, the local parish had used the rating system to glean the necessary finance for outdoor relief, including the administration of essential food and clothing. The ratepayers soon found to their alarm that, compared to the £2,000,000 per annum being spent on outdoor relief in 1790, a massive £8,000,000 per annum was being allocated to the same scheme by 1830. This huge increase resulted in the government introducing a new Poor Law in 1834 and, with no benefits system in operation, those who were either too young or too old were destined to end up in the brutal workhouses.

The conditions of these workhouses have been well-publicised and Dickens’ Oliver Twist is just one example of how several well-intentioned philanthropists attempted to campaign for the rights of those unfortunate occupants who were forced to reside in such horrific places. A particularly bad example is that of a workhouse in Andover, which inspired a full-scale investigation by the Times newspaper in 1845. As the result of an increase in public pressure, some outdoor relief was reintroduced in certain parts of the country. The most ironic thing about the economic situation in Britain at the time, was that in the very midst of all this suffering there was a golden age taking place in the field of agriculture. During the 1850s Britain was commonly regarded as the leading industrial nation, providing 50% of the world’s textiles. Unfortunately, however, the monopoly which Britain commanded in this sphere could not last and by the 1870s unemployment soared as a depression took the country by storm. Prices began to fall as Britain was subjected to a torrent of American and German imports, and many people were now buying foreign goods.

In order to cope with the rise in unemployment the government initiated Package Schemes, with the unemployed finding themselves being deported to Australia and New Zealand along with the prostitute and criminal fraternities. The causes of unemployment were investigated by Charles Booth and Sebaum Rowntree, and it was discovered that an increase in elderly people, large families and personal disabilities – among other contributing factors – were responsible for the increase. At the beginning of the twentieth century the government was beginning to realise that external factors could also be responsible for unemployment, and popular support for non-intervention began to be eroded. Two Liberals – Lloyd George and Winston Churchill – tried to alleviate the burgeoning problem of unemployment in order to counter the rise of the Left, which had begun to gain a foothold in Britain after following the example of Germany’s experiments with State Socialism and the implementation of sickness and unemployment benefit legislation under Bismarck. Germany’s brand of ‘socialism’ suited the Liberals well, because Churchill and Lloyd George wanted to stave off the rising demands for socialism with a compromise that indicated a willingness to provide social benefits only as long as the people were prepared to pay for it.

William Beveridge had been advising the Liberals about poverty in the British Isles for several years, until Churchill established the first labour exchanges in 1909. The first old age pensions were implemented the same year, although those qualifying for this benefit had to be over 70 years of age, in employment and of a sound character. The old laissez-faire approach had been replaced with a system that – at least to some extent – was prepared to help those who were prepared to help themselves. Two years later, in 1911, the first benefit system was introduced in the form of the National Insurance Act, which only catered for certain trades which were affected by either cyclical or seasonal unemployment. In reality, however, this Act was controlled by the friendly societies, whose members were exempt from taxation as a result of services rendered to the State. This served the government well in its efforts to avoid taking full control of the situation, and remains a classic example of just how long it took the government to adopt a greater degree of responsibility on behalf of the socially disadvantaged. The government had, however, been forced to become more and more involved from the 1890s onwards and soon recognised that it had an interest in maintaining the well-being of its citizens. This was influenced, in part, by the necessity of retaining a standing army in order to defend Britain from the possibility of war. In other words. people had to be fed and looked after properly if they were to measure up to the rigorous demands of British soldiery. Regular school meals and inspections became vital in the lead up to the Boer War.

Finally, it is clear to see how the government experienced a vast change in attitude towards the unemployed over a period of one hundred years. At the same time we must take into  consideration the fact that, given the government’s real motives for trying to improve the condition of those at the poorer end of the social scale, it nevertheless remains apparent that there was still no real attempt to alter the fabric of society in terms of allowing for true justice and freedom.

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