LEADING TO WORLD WAR I
King Edward VII (1901-1910) came to the throne at his mother’s death in 1901. He readily made noticeable changes in court life. Victoria’s reign, especially towards the end, had taken a turn for a gloomy and sad atmosphere as if the Queen had never really recovered from the mourning of her beloved husband. King Edward then brought to Buckingham Palace a modern flair in interior decorations and lifestyle, in fact the palace halls were lit again with festive lighting and brought back to life with music and dancing through its balls and other lively activities. Yet, his personal most impressive achievement lays within the realm of diplomacy as he signed with France in 1904 the Cordiale Entente, at heart a commercial agreement that allowed Britain to pursue its business interest in Egypt while leaving France free to pursue hers in Morocco, it also implicitly set an allegiance between Britain and France that included Russia as well in case of war with Germany, Austria and Italy.
These are years of formidable imperialism during which all the European powers challenged one another in depredating colonies all over the world, the more lands and people they conquered and besieged the better they proved their European stronghold to others. From the Far East to Africa natural resources and labour were exploited to the sole benefit of the wealthiest and most powerful entrepreneurs that, often lacking any moral or ethical scruple, set off to colonise far off lands to make money. Furthermore, this was also a time of relentless faith in science and progress and the new technologies applied to improve everyday life in many fields, as already outlined, gave the idea that well being and economic stability was at hand for almost all, or at least for those that worked hard. Moreover, as it has been pointed out previously, the so called Victorian Compromise provided these new businessmen with many justifying theories that lifted off their shoulders any sort of responsibility towards the less fortunate portion of society and even more of the colonised people. Going from Utilitarianism to the convenient exploitation of Darwin’s theories, which many saw fit to apply to social issues, they firmly conveyed the idea according to which only the strongest deserved to survive or succeed, colonisation and the ransacking of these countries’ goods was nothing to be appalled by, on the contrary Westerners were considered superior in race thanks to their ability to acquire wealth and power even if at the expense of others especially if these were not competent enough to make the best of their opportunities.
It is quite clear then that Imperialism led the way to racism and nationalism, the three main issues that will plunge Europe, after a long lasting period of peace, into the beginning of a time featured by devastating wars. The world would never be the same again.
Britain’s supremacy in Europe as an Industrial and Economic power was declining, yet the upper classes and politicians chose not to see what was really happening and behaved as if nothing had changed since its glorious past. In the mean time social conditions remained unaltered since Victoria’s reign if not worsened. There were still clear cut distinctions in social classes and very little social mobility, furthermore poverty still anguished a very large portion of British population, meaning that there were still millions of people that couldn’t provide enough food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families.
Nevertheless it was also a time of great changes that set the foundations for what is commonly known worldwide as the Welfare State.
The milestone in British history that made such changes possible was the election of 1906 during which the Liberals took office. During this time the Liberal Party was divided in two groups, on one side those who still championed laissez-faire and self-help in economy, therefore held true to the idea that the free market would regulate itself without any unwanted interference from the government and, consequently those who worked hard in the end would succeed; on the other side instead the group which believed that social justice was to be pursued by the Government that had the responsibility to safeguard the poor. This second group embodied New Liberalism, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) and Winston Churchill (1874-1965) were two of the main exponents of this latter one.
The 1906 government had David Lloyd George as Chancellor of Exchequer, he was the key man at the head of Britain’s finances and it is thanks to him if many of the most important reforms of this time were passed since he had the money, power and will to achieve them.
The Children’s Charter (1906-1908) it’s a series of laws that were meant to improve poor children’s life by providing them with:
- free meals,
- regular medical assistance at school,
- they were not allowed in public houses (pubs),
- they were not allowed to beg.
Old Age Pension Plan when people became too old to work more often than not they became poor and had no other choice than to take shelter in workhouses with all its well known consequences and effects, to avoid such distressing fate after a long working life the old age pension was introduced for those who had an annual income lower than £21.
Minimum Wages (1909) were set for all workers
Health Benefits (1911) workers were given free health care and sickness benefits, meaning that they were paid even if for health issues couldn’t go to work.
These laws clearly stated the Government’s responsibility towards the country’s less fortunate as a principle. Needless to say that such provisions required financial funding therefore higher taxes were raised for the wealthier portions of society in favour of the poor and of course many opposed this policy especially the House of Lords which sided for the Conservative party, in fact they rejected Lloyd George’s budget causing great protest in Parliament. It was then deemed necessary to change some of the prerogatives that still characterised the House of Lords and with the Parliament Act in 1911 that chamber of Parliament no longer had any power over financial decisions taken by the Government. It also set general elections every five years. This reform still stands today.
At the turn of the century women’s fight for equal rights was still struggling, they still didn’t have the right to vote at general election and could not be elected MPs. In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was funded by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. This association was soon called that of the “Suffragettes” and it advocated the right to vote for all women. Changes regarding women’s emancipation was underway with an increase in civil rights battles that were carried out with public demonstrations, marches in London that brought them under the spot light. Some of these public outbursts resulted in violence as many members took to chaining themselves to railings, breaking windows, attacking policemen physically and were consequently arrested and sent to prison where they continued their fight with hunger strikes. But it wasn’t till 1918 that women 30 and over gained the right to vote and only because during World War I women proved to be a great asset to the country with their competence and reliability as workers and citizens. In fact, during the Great War women brilliantly replaced men in all fields of work taking over all their jobs thus avoiding the country’s economic and industrial collapse.
The Birth of the Tabloid’s Forerunners
Another important change of habits during this time was the birth of what would later become the tabloid. As a matter of fact although universal education had increased considerably the reading public, it was also true that many of these new readers on the one hand couldn’t afford to buy papers like “The Times” or the “Daily Telegraph” and on the other didn’t have the required knowledge to understand the long journalistic analysis published mostly on politics. This is probably why when the “Daily Mail” appeared in 1896 it soon met the public’s favour. The main differences with the older newspapers were the simple language employed in short articles and the eye-catching layout. But most important of all the price, it cost only half a penny making it accessible to many lower class readers and more attractive to them.
K. O. Morgan, The Illustrated History of Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1984
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© L. R. Capuana